Character development scheme targets those at Neet risk

Nina Jacobs
Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Vulnerable young people take part in social action projects to build resilience.

  • Workshops also offer advice on employability skills and interview preparation
  • Get guaranteed interview for a paid job or internship with a corporate partner


Social integration charity The Challenge has created a character development programme that is helping young people at risk of dropping out of education to get back on track.

Recognising that young people at risk of becoming not in education, employment or training (Neet) sometimes lack resilience and confidence, the charity decided to pilot an adapted version of its personal development programme HeadStart with this group.

HeadStart Action ran across three schools in Southwark over a 16-week period in 2018 with around 90 pupils. The programme has since been expanded to incorporate 425 pupils enrolled at schools and colleges across Newham, Hackney, Haringey and Westminster.

Funding for HeadStart Action - which aims to forge closer links between education and employment while young people become more active members of their local communities - was provided by Lendlease and the Mayor of London's Young Londoners Fund.

While HeadStart Action was initially designed for 14- to 18-year-olds, it has since been trialled with pupils as young as year 7, explains Teean Smith-Robinson, the programme's manager.

She says the decision to "tap into a different demographic" was based on the success of the HeadStart programme which has so far engaged almost 10,000 young people since 2013.

Referrals are made from schools, as well as sixth form colleges, from within the four boroughs and pupils are then invited to a launch phase of the programme.

The offer of a guaranteed interview is a strong incentive for taking part, explains Smith-Robinson.

"We tell them it will be a good thing to put on their CV and because they are pre-Neet, we are engaging them in their education," she adds.

The programme comprises two phases: social action and employability skills training, and personal development.

"All programmes have the same principles and work to the same outcomes but for the expanded version, the young people might say they want to do employability skills training first," says Smith-Robinson.

Participants are offered three one-to-one sessions with a mentor and then given additional mentoring if needed throughout the 16-week programme.

Working together with three local delivery partners, The Diana Award, Groundwork London and Inspire!, the programme helps to engage each young person in a social action project.

This element of the programme is "essential" says Smith-Robinson, not least because it provides the opportunity to "lend a listening ear" to the young participants.

"We want them to explore issues that are meaningful to them," she says.

"As adults we need to question how much interaction we have with young people.

"Do we listen to them? Do we see their skills? The programme is designed to champion young people."

For the pilot, young people worked with two charity partners including a theatre company developing a performance piece that was performed at a showcase event at City Hall.

Themes explored included stereotypes of people in the media, particularly those belonging to different ethnic and religious groups.

Supporting the social action phase, Smith-Robinson says the mentoring sessions are used to look at young people's areas of development, their personal goals and how the programme can help achieve them.

"We also look at their character and explore what it is they want to concentrate on - it might be confidence issues so we help by giving them gentle encouragement during the social action phase because we know they are working towards their showcase event," she says.

Other concerns could relate to public speaking, being able to make eye contact or issues around self-esteem.

Smith-Robinson says the programme also builds empathy by bringing together pupils from different cultural, social and economic backgrounds to work on joint projects.

"Those involved in HeadStart Action started to form their own community which meant they were more in tune to people's differences and in turn could show empathy towards others," she explains.


In 2017/18, 2,100 young people took part in HeadStart committing around 40,000 hours of their time in voluntary work to local charities.

Of the young people surveyed after completing the programme, 87 per cent said they felt connected to their community compared with 33 per cent before taking part.

Around three quarters said it was likely that they would continue volunteering after their involvement with HeadStart had finished.

In terms of employability skills, young people reported improvements in this area with those who said they could speak clearly at interviews rising from 40 to 76 per cent.

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