Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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City Slackers: how the Square Mile is reaching out to dropouts

Published By: The Independent - 26 Mar 2009

Despite recent dents to its glittering reputation, the City of London remains one of the wealthiest places on earth. Yet it is surrounded by poor urban areas where many young people flounder and fail. Under normal circumstances these two worlds would never meet, but an imaginative series of workshops is now tapping the resources of the City to help young people get back on track.

The City4ADay programme targets young people from 16 to 25 who are not in employment, education or training. These so-called NEETS are the very hardest youngsters to reach. They might be stuck deep in problems of drugs, violence or homelessness, or have mental and emotional issues that make it hard for them to function. This programme allows them to spend a day in the City, where they meet people who work there and take part in team building exercises and games. The idea isn’t to turn them into bankers or traders (who said thank goodness?), but to widen their horizons, build their confidence and make them aware that there is an array of service jobs in the Square Mile and elsewhere that they could realistically aspire to.

It is crucial work. According to the national charity Fairbridge, which supports inner city young people, there are at least one and a quarter million young NEETS in the UK, and each one is estimated to cost the state £277,000 over their lifetime. Not surprisingly the Government is aiming to cut the number of young NEETS by 20 per cent in the next five years, while reducing the number of teenage NEETS is now the top overall priority of local councils in England.

But it is painstaking work, and the recent City4ADay day at Plantation Place, a massive glass monolith near the Bank of England, does not start well. Only three young people have turned up – usually it is more like seven -- and they are late.

However for young people like these a 10am start can be challenging and at least Suad Kamil Mohamed, 17, Munasar Munye, 22, and Keiron Hyde, 16, have made it, although they look shy and uneasy as they set off to tour the building with its sixteen lifts and 4,000 smartly be-suited workers, and it is left to the accompanying adults of ask the questions.

The young people are taken behind the scenes and shown how the building runs. Broadgate Estates, which manage its, is their host for the day. They go up onto the roof to see the window cleaning cradles and talk to the man in charge of cleaning the building’s 40,000 windows, walk past the recycling bins below stairs, meet the head receptionist, and are taken to see the security centre where images from 88 cameras are monitored and fire evacuations orchestrated.

Later they interview some of the workers who have shown them around, and these workers, all of whom are volunteering their time to the programme, give them powerful messages. Anna Cikalska, the head receptionist, explains that although English isn’t her first language “it doesn’t matter where you are coming from as long as you’re ready to pursue your dreams and change your life.” The security manager, Chris Russell, a born teacher, gets their full attention as he tells them about his rise from a young man in trouble to the responsible job he has today. He tells them that he likes to give people a chance as long as “they’ve got energy and are ready to go” and that there’s more flexibility in the workplace than they might think -- everyone understands, for example, that one of his security guards, a Moslem, needs time to go and pray.

The young people consider what qualities are needed for the jobs they’ve just found out about and Frank Funnell, programme manager of The Brokerage Citylink, the City-based charity which runs the City4ADay courses, talks them through how to present a good c.v. and interview well. “You could put down on your c.v, for example, that you’ve come here today. It shows you can be bothered, you can make an effort.”

These young NEETS all face different problems. Kieron is anxious not to follow his older brother to prison, while Munasar has battled family issues and homelessness. For Suad it is different. She fled to the UK three months ago from Somalia after her cousin was killed and her grandmother insisted she leave. Despite having no schooling, her English is already impressive, and she is determined to seize opportunities. “I like England,” she says. “I feel safe when I walk down the street.” She has never been up a high building before, never been anywhere like the City in her life, and she soaks up every minute of the day like a sponge.

After lunch, a computer-based trading game brings the boys alive. Galvanised by competition and money they show themselves to be fast thinkers and quick calculators. Their body language opens out and their eyes spark with enjoyment.

By the end of the day they are leaving with masses to think about. Kieron says “I enjoyed today, I enjoyed everything. I’ll probably hold on to most of it.” Munasar also says he enjoyed it, “and I didn’t think I’d even wake up to come here. But I’ve certainly learned a few things and I understand more now about what they mean when they say on the news that something is going up and something else is going down.”

“The good thing about this programme is that they have to review everything, and find out everything for themselves, so it’s much more powerful. If you just gave it to them it wouldn’t stay with them,” says Tony Buck, a development tutor with Fairlight, whose Hackney staff have brought the young people here today. Back at base they offer youngsters an individualised programme of skills and support, including outdoor challenge trips to rural Wales. It’s slow work, says Buck, but sometimes the most unexpected youngsters turn their lives around and then drop in on their way to work to say hello.

“The other thing that is built into this programme is that we go and meet the group beforehand,” says Funnell. “It’s a very fragile population so this can help. No-one has to come, and generally we have smaller numbers than on our other courses, but they still take a lot of resources and effort. Our aim is to boost people up, but also to adjust their reality as well.” It definitely helps some consider new options. One19-year-old who attended a previous City4ADay course has since started a full-time business apprenticeship.

Eight courses will have been run by the end of this financial year and more are likely. David Pack, partnership manager with the City of London Corporation, which funds it, says it is part of a 40-plus array of projects which the Corporation runs to build links with the City’s seven neighbouring boroughs, all of which have significant areas of disadvantage. “What this programme is really all about is aspiration. The young people find out it’s not that drab working in a suit, in an office, and even if the number of jobs are not likely to be as high in the immediate future in the City, the skills are transferable.”

The Corporation works with many companies and partners and, despite the financial crisis, Pack says “there is no sign of any cutting back on these. In fact, given the perception of the City at the moment there is every reason to keep these kinds of projects going.”