Making the connection - Anthony Vanterpool (Swifty) - Winner: Outstanding Public Servant of the Year

18 May 06
This year's Outstanding Public Servant of the Year represents the best in public service, say the judges. Through his work with Connexions, Anthony Vanterpool or 'Swifty' helps to change the lives of vulnerable young people in Lancashire. Anat Arkin reports

19 May 2006

This year's Outstanding Public Servant of the Year represents the best in public service, say the judges. Through his work with Connexions, Anthony Vanterpool – or 'Swifty' – helps to change the lives of vulnerable young people in Lancashire. Anat Arkin reports

When Anthony Vanterpool was in his fourth year at secondary school, a teacher told him that he'd never amount to anything because he came from Moss Side, the Manchester district notorious for its gun crime and gang culture.

The impressionable youngster believed if the teacher said so, it must be true – with the result that he spent the next few years living down to expectations and 'going nowhere fast', as he puts it. Despite these unpromising beginnings, today Swifty, as everyone calls him, is a highly regarded professional working for Connexions Lancashire, which provides a range of support services for young people.

As a personal adviser and key worker, he has helped to change the lives of so many vulnerable teenagers that he is well known in Skelmersdale, a former mining village that was reinvented as a new town to house some of Liverpool's overspill population in the 1960s. Described by a fellow worker as 'inspirational' and by a team leader as 'a dream' to manage, Swifty was recently named Colleague of the Year by his organisation, and Employee of the Year by Lancashire North and West Chamber of Commerce. To cap it all, he has just been declared Outstanding Public Servant of the Year, as well as winner of the Frontline Worker (Raising the Standard) category in the annual Public Finance awards.

'Of all the nominations we read through, this was the one in which the personality and commitment of the nominee leapt off the page,' says Sir Michael Lyons, chair of the judging panel and acting chair of the Audit Commission. 'Swifty was a very clear and worthy winner, someone who is willing to go well beyond the boundaries of his job and who represents the very best that we find in public service.'

It's a view shared by Swifty's bosses and many of the young people he works with and their families. Yet for a good proportion of his life, it looked as if he might fulfil his former teacher's predictions.

After leaving school with few qualifications, he drifted into a succession of casual jobs. In his late teens, his parents became so worried about the company he was keeping that they packed him off to stay with an uncle in Florida. The wisdom of their decision was borne out on the day he arrived in the US, when he learnt that his closest friend back home in Manchester had been shot dead. It proved to be a defining moment in his life.

After leaving Florida, Swifty backpacked around the Caribbean, visiting St Kitts, where his parents hailed from, and other islands. What he saw on his travels put his own troubles into perspective. 'Before, I'd had a “no-one gives me a chance, why is it always me?” attitude,' he says. 'But out there, those questions seemed pathetic. So it was a bit of an eye-opener for me – the best learning experience that I could have had.'

Returning to the UK with a determination to make something of his life, he retook his GCSEs at college and resumed the part-time voluntary youth work he had been doing before going abroad. After toying with the idea of joining the Royal Marines, he decided instead to attend Leeds Metropolitan University.

In his first year he regularly notched up marks of 60% and 70%. 'I'd never got such high marks in my life, and I was feeling good about myself,' he says. But a transfer to a university in Manchester in his second year turned out to be a big mistake: 'I took my foot right off the gas and my marks plummeted.'

A talk with his tutor about what had gone wrong proved unedifying. The academic preferred to talk to him about football rather than education, in what seemed to be a reprise of the stereotyping that had discouraged him at school. Close to dropping out, at the last minute, Swifty decided to reapply to Leeds Metropolitan. 'They welcomed me back and, all of a sudden, my marks shot back up again,' he recalls.

After graduating, he became a youth worker at a Manchester college of further education before applying to the Connexions service in Lancashire, for a job as a personal adviser in either Blackpool, Chorley or Skelmersdale. He chose Skelmersdale, undeterred by a warning that it didn't have a large ethnic minority population.

'I said that was all the more reason for me to be there – to break down the barriers,' he says. He attracted some curious looks when he first arrived in the town, but he took it in his stride. 'It's a small place, a very isolated place,' he says. 'But people took to me and treated me the way I'd like to be treated and I hope that I have reciprocated.'

Initially, he was assigned to a project called Moving Up, designed to help young people in the final year of compulsory schooling make the transition to adult life. 'The other side of it was to do home visits to young people who were completely disengaged from school to try to get them back into some sort of learning,' Swifty explains.

The unassuming 31-year-old makes light of any problems, but Karen O'Donoghue, chief executive of Connexions Lancashire, says he has worked hard to break down barriers and get people to accept him. 'He is part of a statutory service, which is designed to get people into jobs, and there's always a level of suspicion around anybody that belongs to a statutory service,' she says. 'So he has had to overcome that suspicion and he's earned the respect of the community.'

She talks about his talent for establishing a rapport with the young people he works with, some of whom are on the verge of becoming homeless or involved in crime or drugs. Others lack confidence or have learning difficulties, and many display challenging behaviour. But Swifty seems to have the knack of getting through to even the hardest-to-reach youngsters.

'He clicks with young people and doesn't talk at them, and he goes all the way to help you,' says Kate Russell, one of his former clients, who was so badly bullied at school that she dropped out at the age of 15. Swifty started working with her shortly after that, helping her regain her confidence and supporting her while she studied for a GNVQ qualification at a local college. Now 20, she plans to follow in his footsteps by applying for a job as a trainee Connexions adviser.

Having a laidback manner and approachability might have enabled Swifty to engage with his young clients but he has also given up his own time to support them. On one occasion, he arranged a work placement on a fruit farm for a boy with learning difficulties. However, when it became clear that the youngster didn't have the confidence to go on the placement alone, Swifty rolled up his sleeves and spent a weekend picking fruit with him.

In another example of his readiness to go well beyond the call of duty, Swifty travelled down to Plymouth, in his own time and at his own expense, to attend the passing-out parade of a young woman he had supported through her application to the Royal Navy.

But he won't be able to be quite so generous with his time in future, as his partner is expecting their first child this August. 'So far, I've had the luxury of time and I've been able to use it but when I have my own child, things will be different,' he says.

Things have already changed since he joined Connexions Lancashire four years ago. His success with Moving Up led to his appointment as team leader for six key workers in the project Positive Activities for Young People (PAYP). The job is temporary, covering maternity leave, but the experience has prompted him to apply for a place on a master's degree programme in management.

The role of a key worker on the PAYP project is similar to that of a personal adviser, although meetings with clients are more frequent and the relationship is more intense. In both roles, however, he accepts that he won't always see the results of his work.

'With some young people, you do see the impact you've made, and that's great,' he says. 'But with others you know that it's not going to happen while you are in this role. So I don't get too disappointed. I know that if I do my best, I can sleep at night and look those young people in the face.'

His 'best' means being honest with his clients and never promising them more than he can deliver. He adds that he knows his own limitations and does not hesitate to refer young people to other professionals if that is the best way to help them.

Equally modest about the awards he has garnered recently, he insists that much of what he has achieved since joining Connexions is down to the support and encouragement of his line manager Janet Finn. As for the awards themselves, he says: 'I've enjoyed the experience, it's been very positive – but I'm just one of around 460 employees [in Connexions Lancashire] and I've just been lucky enough to be the person chosen for these awards.'


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