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Drafted into war on truancy

Ex-soldiers are to be used to help keep disaffected teenagers off the streets. Amanda Kelly reports

RETIRED military instructors are to be drafted in to schools in high crime areas to keep potential trouble-makers off the street and in lessons.

The move, part of the Government's drive to cut truancy and street crime, follows improved attendance and behaviour from the 1,200 pupils in 47 schools already involved in the Skill Force programme.

Now the Department for Education and Skills is to provide money for the programme, which was set up in 1999, to expand into 11 more areas next year. It is currently funded by the Ministry of Defence.

Retired soldiers work two mornings a week with teenagers who usually fall into the bottom 10 per cent academically or have behavioural difficulties. The pupils are guided through vocational courses and activities, including the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme and the ASDAN programme (Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network).

Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Cross, founder and project director, said: "A lot of street crime is committed by disaffected teenagers who should be at school. These are the youngsters we are being invited to work with.

"All the evidence from the first years of the project shows taking part in the scheme improves attendance, behaviour and motivation and if the kids are in school, they are not going to be out causing trouble.

"Our instructors have real street credibility with the youngsters because they have worked all over the world. They are the sort of role models the kids do not want to muck around in front of and they do not rise to the bait in the way some teachers may do."

The first major evaluation of the programme, discussed in the House of Lords last week, shows that it has cut truancy rates, and improved behaviour and motivation.

Peers heard how initial scepticism from teachers that the Army had initiated the programme as a recruiting tactic had been overcome by its dramatic results.

Participants who were previously truanting were now attending an average 90 per cent of the time and the number in danger of permanent exclusion had dropped by 70 per cent.

At Fairfield school in Newcastle, truancy rates among Skill Force members have fallen significantly, even on days when the youngsters are attending their mainstream lessons.

Russ Wallace, headteacher, said: "The essence of the programme is that the kids are in an environment they do not associate with normal school and are learning essential skills, such as working as part of a team, that will help them get a job when they leave."

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