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Full ahead for Skill Force

A new initiative backed by the First Minister that claims major successes in getting pupils back on track is set to expand in Scotland.

The Skill Force programme, which began in England and Wales in 2001 as a measure to tackle truancy and improve pupil motivation, has been piloted in five North Lanarkshire secondary schools with third and fourth-year pupils.

It was evaluated by Glasgow University academics who found that 96 per cent of the 200 youngsters taking part at the time, and their parents, valued it highly.

Its origins sparked controversy because its use of former military officers as instructors gave it an inevitable "boot camp" image, although the evaluation by Glasgow University's Kevin Lowden and Joanne Quinn suggests it has successfully shaken that off.

Now Jack McConnell has declared: "Ideally, every school in Scotland would have a Skill Force team of its own."

John O'Keane, a head of service in North Lanarkshire's education department, commented: "A very significant majority of the kids derive enormous enjoyment from it and get a range of qualifications and certificates which they otherwise wouldn't have.

"The pupils no longer see themselves as being on the margins of the school community and realise that they have a part to play."

One of the five North Lanarkshire heads involved said that the initiative had made "a real difference to the lives of the young people in the school who would formerly have been written off".

Another head said schools were "delighted with the current programme and want it to continue".

Other authorities have begun to respond positively and James Cant, a former teacher in Scotland and civil servant in Whitehall and Edinburgh who is Skill Force development manager for Scotland, told The TES Scotland he hoped a number would come on board by August next year.

Dr Cant said lessons had been learnt from the first year of the North Lanarkshire pilot so that, instead of simply having youngsters who "cause mayhem", there was now a broader range of pupils and a good mix of boys and girls. The experience should also benefit Christmas leavers, those who have an unconditional offer for university, pupils who lack confidence and the gifted and talented.

"If you put all your most difficult youngsters into the one group, you are not going to be successful," Dr Cant said. "It's not as though our instructors are miracle workers and are going to succeed in circumstances where teachers have not."

He believes the programme benefits from being part of the school curriculum - young people who take part choose it in place of a Standard grade in S3 and S4.

Dr Cant says the instructors, who specialise in team building and problem-solving approaches, have had major success in "keeping kids in the system" - 75 of the 81 North Lanarkshire youngsters who completed the programme last year were all either in school, in other education or training or in a job. Considerable numbers have obtained awards in the Duke of Edinburgh scheme, St Andrews Ambulance First Aid and junior sports leader schemes.

"Many of these kids have never won anything in their lives," Dr Cant said.

"When we held a prizegiving for our graduates in June, we had a remarkable turnout from the parents and, as one teacher said to me, 'I've seen many of these parents before, but never for a positive reason like this'."

Schools reported improved attainment and attendance, better behaviour, enhanced self-confidence and maturity, and improved social skills and attitudes.

The Glasgow University study adds: "Headteachers and staff also highlighted the positive impact on the wider life of their school including the instructors becoming more widely involved in supporting the work of the school and sharing skills with teachers, improvements in pupils' behaviour resulting in less stress for teachers and other pupils, and an improved profile of the school because of the achievements of the participants."

Skill Force believes it can demonstrate value for money at large. Estimates from south of the border, described by the Department for Education and Skills as "conservative", suggest that each Skill Force team could save the public purse more than pound;500,000 in "lifetime costs" through cutting spending on exclusions, crime and benefits.

But the Glasgow study reminds Skill Force that it may need active marketing of its concept to cast off any "boot camp" misconceptions if it is to expand successfully to other areas of Scotland.

"It would be beneficial to establish with local authorities and schools a clear understanding of which groups of young people might benefit most from Skill Force provision and what the ideal composition of the participant groups might be."

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