He is the Royal we check out most frequently on the internet - and generally for laughs. We love to mock his dodgy private life, his back-to-Balmoral shooting outfits and his grumpy-old-man pronouncements on architecture and nanotechnology. Yet he has recently won a glowing Ofsted report for his work with troubled school pupils, and his lifelong work to support disadvantaged young people continues to forge ahead with plans for a two-day hip-hop music festival this May, and an ambitious target to help an additional 100 young people every day.
So just how significant a player is the Prince of Wales in the grind of trying to lift youngsters off the bottom rung of society's ladder? Is his work just a Robin Hood affair, valued for its ability to coax funds from the rich to give to the poor? Or is he pioneering effective new approaches to the problems of educational disadvantage?
Just like the man himself, the answers are contradictory. His work is high profile. The royal name drums up sponsors, draws in celebrities and opens doors in high places. His charity, the Prince's Trust, employs more than 800 staff and has helped half a million young people since it was set up nearly 30 years ago. It works with numerous organisations to reach out to some of the neediest children and young adults in the country. And this work is increasingly moving into the educational mainstream. Many of the Trust's courses are run on public funds, and are now starting to be judged by stringent public standards of accountability. And the outcome, so far, has been a mixture of respect and reproof.
Certainly there's respect in the ratty King's Lynn fire department hall where 13 unemployed youngsters are working out whether a jumble sale or sponsored walk would be a better way of raising funds for a community project they are embarking on. Twitchy, pale and unconfident, they have just started a 12-week Team Course, developed by the Trust to help 16- to 25-year-olds develop personal skills, and seem to understand very clearly that this might be their one hope of achieving something better. "I'd like to work for a builder," says Stephen Graves, 20, "and you get a two-week work placement here, so if I do a good job, they might train me."
The Trust also helps young people to start their own businesses or do community work, and it works with younger teenagers, running clubs for pupils who have problems with school. In all this work it focuses on four groups: those who have poor educational skills, young offenders, the unemployed, or those leaving care. Much of what the Trust does is painstaking, unglamorous and a million miles from the glittering fundraisers, like Party in the Park, for which it is often known. Even getting youngsters to turn up to courses can be an uphill battle, says Deek Richardson, who has been seconded from his job as a firefighter for a year to run the Team programme in King's Lynn. "They might be used to staying up till 3am and sleeping till 2pm. They come from horrendous backgrounds. There's abuse of all kinds, alcohol, depression, they may have lost their parents. It's the full monty, if you like."
However, research shows that more than 70 per cent of unemployed young people who have been on Team Courses go on to jobs or training, while the xl clubs for 14- to 16-year-olds recently received praise from school inspectors, who said they offered "a very effective alternative curriculum". Schools have been so taken with them that the number of pupils enrolled has jumped fivefold in the past three years from 1,500 to 9,000, and the Trust cannot keep up with the requests for help.
All secondary schools in Durham now have them, and Kingsley Smith, the chief executive of the county council, is full of praise: "Attendance and behaviour patterns have improved and the graduated, structured approach has encouraged young people to resume involvement in the traditional curriculum."
But not everything in the Prince's garden is so rosy. When the Adult Learning Inspectorate looked at the Trust's Team Courses last summer, its judgement was harsh. "The quality of provision is not adequate to meet the reasonable needs of those receiving it," the inspectors said. "The Trust's leadership and management are satisfactory, but quality assurance is unsatisfactory."
Sally McEnhill, the principal of Merton College which runs 15 or more Team Courses a year, understands the challenges the Trust faces in delivering consistently good teaching and learning when it is working with such an array of partners. "The programme and provision is terrific, and there's no doubt that the name gives added value. But if you are going to use public money to run these courses, you've got to make sure they're delivered to the proper standard by all providers. It's all right with a big partner like us, where these sorts of issues are our bread and butter, but there can be problems with the smaller ones."
Lesley Morphy, the director of programmes and policy at the Trust, acknowledges that work is needed in this area, and also in tracking people after they finish a programme. The Trust is also keen to develop its mentoring of those leaving care, and to increase other, longer-term support.
"But we are dealing with 40,000 young people a year who would tend not to be picked up otherwise. They are the ones who sit almost outside the figures, who are hard to reach. And we're very attractive to young people. There's a real authority about doing something with our name on it."
Yet out in the field, efforts to improve standards by tightening up on accountability can seem a distraction. Richardson complains bitterly about the form-filling his young charges have to do as they struggle to compile evidence that they have made progress in their three chosen skill areas. "This sort of thing is hard for them. The course has moved from being vocational towards being a bit too academic, in my view."
And there's another problem, too. Research into poor neighbourhoods by Ruth Lupton, of the London School of Economics' Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, casts doubt on the long-term effectiveness of any short programmes. "Kids like this have such low self-esteem that what they really need to do is to build up trust in relationships with adults over a period of time," she says. "They don't need short-term interventions, they need the kind of old-fashioned youth worker who's just there, floating around all the time."
Although, of course, she agrees that when the problems are as huge as they are, anything is better than nothing. "If a Prince's Trust course inspires just one child to do something with their lives, then in my book the whole thing is worth it."
'I DIDN'T THINK I COULD DO ANYTHING. NOW I THINK I CAN'
"Right," says Mike Blakey, "I've got a little game for you. It's about communication. You're going to be using Lego, but no one's going to think you're back in playschool."
Pair by pair, the 10 teenagers in his xl club at Earlham High School, Norwich, sit back to back and and try to build identical models. One has to tell the other where to put the pieces, and they quickly realise they must give precise and detailed instructions. Blakey then expands the concept, discussing with them how this applies to other situations. They are engaged and cheerful, despite the fact that many have been poised on the brink of school exclusion.
"Six of this 10 are on report, but they are doing much better," says Blakey. "We can take time to deal with things like inappropriate behaviour in a way that teachers can't."
Eight hundred xl clubs are run by the Prince's Trustto keep disaffected 14- to 16-year-olds on track. They offer a two-year programme, delivered during the school day as part of the curriculum, during which pupils work on personal and social skills. Ofsted, which inspected the programme last year, said it led to "very demonstrable gains in self-confidence, self-esteem and communication skills".
Dean Kalanesan, 15, agrees. "Last year I was on report 51 times. This year it's been three or four. I can handle my emotions better; I'm calmer."
"I never used to listen," says Amy Snelling, 14. "When I first came here I didn't think I could do anything, now I think I can."
Blakey says it is vital to keep kids of this age on side, and xl clubs are flexible enough to do that. "If you're out of school, you're at a loose end, mixing with older people, exposed to drugs and crime - and then everyone in society suffers."Reuse content