This week is the big return to work, and I'm wondering what sort of a holiday my students have had. The meal we treated them to at Nando's just before Christmas was probably as good as it got for some of them.
For vulnerable young people, this can be a tough time. Family estrangement, mental health problems and no safe place to stay are just some of the problems they face.
Our students are a brilliant, talented bunch. But life hasn't been always been easy for them. School hasn't been a great success. They've struggled with academic work and left without the five GCSEs, including the all-important English and maths, that everyone needs to progress to college or employment. Some of them struggle with basic literacy and numeracy and their employment prospects are, let's face it, zilch.
These kids are would-be NEETs - that awful de-personalised education acronym that stands for Not in Education, Employment or Training.
These are the youngsters who, without help, typically end up with serious mental illness and in physical ill-health - and very often in prison. At one point, in the north of England, 15 per cent of long-term NEETs were dead within 10 years, according to a top Department of Education civil servant. Being outside education, employment or training took them into a 'downward spiral' that led to them dying 'very, very young'.
Ministers say the proportion of 16-18 year olds NEETs is 'at its lowest level since consistent records began'. But a shocking new report from the Fabians think-tank, Out of Sight, says that more than 50,000 in this age group have 'gone missing' from official statistics and are receiving no support.
We're determined to ensure that our students stay on the radar. We work with schools (around 100) and colleges to give these challenging young people a chance to get their lives back on track. We run 20-week courses in neutral environments away from school and college. And we embed the basics of literacy and numeracy in vocational subjects that really engage them - sports, performing arts, hair and beauty, and catering.
We have to make up for a lot of lost time in those 20 weeks - or 600 hours as we often think of it.
So what's a 'typical' student group consist of? Some of the lads are tagged thanks to a run-in with the law - and a few even carry on with their criminal careers while on our courses. We might have a young mum-to-be smoking heavily and downing high-energy drinks - not what the midwife ordered. (We've also had girls getting pregnant during the course.) Sometimes court orders prohibit particular students from learning at the same venue because they belong to different gangs. Others are estranged from their families, effectively homeless and living in hostels.
The first thing they need to learn is to turn up for class every day. On time. And for some, who have a history of truancy from school, that's a huge challenge. But without work-readiness, their future chances of employment will always be bleak.
One of the great things about the fresh start with us is that the students arrive unencumbered by their school reputations, whether that's lazy or 'stupid', truants or 'bad' pupils engaged in anti-social behaviour.
And these young people have such potential. Many have simply been dealt a bad hand in their life chances and have been left utterly engrained by failure. We work hard to boost their confidence, their self-belief and their ambitions. They acquire a belief system, they build positive relationships - often for the first time in their lives.
We offer a series of rewards to keep them on track: we took a group of performing arts students to a West End show - a 'first' for them all. The sports students might be incentivised with tickets to a Premier League game. Some may see it as 'bribery', but for us it's a highly effective way of motivating those for whom academic hard graft is anathema.
The vast majority of our students acquire the qualifications they need to progress to college or an apprenticeship. Some even go on to university. And most are very proud of their relationship with our organisation and maintain links with us. We teach them that they have a social responsibility to the next generation.
One of our 'graduates' is now working for us as a tutor. It is the best type of peer learning when a teacher can say to a student: 'I know what you're going through because I used to be one of you.'
I'll always remember 'Charlie'*, a hugely anguished, autistic child who attended one of our first learning centres. We visited his home on a council estate. Inside it was like a palace, with a huge flatscreen TV and all the hi-tech gizmos you could think of. The youth worker told us his brother was a drug dealer. Charlie could hardly speak. He'd been excluded from school for four years. On one occasion he stole his mate's uniform. He just wanted to be back there. But of course as soon as he tried to get into lessons he was thrown out.
But somehow we got him through a Level 1 qualification. It was the first time he'd completed anything, let alone achieved a pass mark.
There are thousands more 'Charlies' out there. There's so much more to do. But in the meantime, a meal at Nando's may be what's needed.
Let Me Play http://www.letmeplay.co.uk/Suggest a correction