In east London – a model which could transform society

Alyssa McDonald visits a project where school leavers get a second chance

"If I was in charge of this country it would all be very different," Eddie Stride tells me, and it is easy to believe him. He has been running City Gateway, a community project that provides young people in the borough of Tower Hamlets with professional training and evening activities, for the past five years. Local teenagers can "just kind of turn up" for an evening's football session or a cookery class, or to practise their DJing, but the centre also provides work-based training and job experience.

City Gateway is one of the area's most popular youth projects, and has made a measurable difference. Between January 2007 and January 2008, 250 young people were removed from the Tower Hamlets Neet (not in employment, education or training) list; City Gateway worked with 220 of them. In five years, it has evolved from an organisation running on £40,000 a year into a "charity-based company" with an annual turnover of £1m.

"Neet kids are Neet for a reason," Eddie explains. "The problems in this area are vast and really entrenched. Too often, people try to help by doing little bits everywhere, or they'll be around for a while and then their project will end. We have partners in other boroughs, but we're focused on Tower Hamlets. And we're here long term."

Inside the freshly painted centre, there's a huge climbing wall, partitioned off from a basketball court; doors off lead to an IT room, music studio, gym and multimedia room where teenagers can learn animation and design. Later this evening, there will be up to 60 young people here. Several of the volunteer staff were, not long ago, using the centre themselves.

City Gateway focuses on training in IT, media and sports. "It's not always about the subject; it's about the process of learning, about how to train your brain," Eddie explains. "Some people will only get a Level 1 qualification, because that is all they can manage. But we've worked on their soft skills - on getting them here on time, on them being polite . . . There's more to it." The project has partnerships with organisations such as the City law firm Allen & Overy, which offers trainees tours of the partnership. "So they see all the jobs in that business. They might come out wanting to be a lawyer, or an IT guy, or a security guard, if that's where they're at in their life." One of the success stories is Reiss, a trainee the centre helped get on to an A-level programme. This autumn, he'll begin a law degree.

Exposing young people to professional role models is invaluable, but time with the centre's own youth workers is equally important. One of the reasons Eddie is keen to run City Gateway as a business is so that it can pay its staff the wage he feels they deserve. "A lot of this work is messy - working with 15- to 20-year-olds. It's messy, it's hard work and it's difficult. But I do believe that we're creating a model which, actually, could help to transform society. I think in Tower Hamlets we already are."

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Superpower swoop