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One final chance to work with the system

The men from the Airborne Initiative prefer ruthless compassion to boot-camp discipline in their work with young offenders. By Nick Holdsworth

Mick doesn't mince his words when he explains what life in Glasgow's meanest neighbourhoods taught him as he matured from boy to man. The 24-year-old persistent offender knows the violence and despair of an aimless inner-city existence where fear and bravado are a way of life and court appearances and jail sentences frequent events.

He has learned the rules of the subculture: use drugs and knives to survive and hope to thrive. But his body bears the scars of this life and his heart is no longer in it.

Mick, one of four young offenders nearing the end of an intensive 10-week alternative to custody scheme, the Airborne Initiative, staffed by former members of the Parachute Regiment and special forces, is determined to put his old life behind him.

"When I was young I thought I could fuck the system, but you cannot: it fucks you. What I've learned is how to get along with the system and how to make it work for you. My daughter is going to be four next month; she cannot be growing up with her father in jail all the time."

The regime for Mick and the other lads is punishing: up at 6am; cross-country running; gym sessions; a three-week expedition coast-to-coast across the Southern Upland Way, and intensive training for work to prepare them for the jobs private companies have offered at the end of the course. The Airborne Initiative is their last chance.

The course divides into two. The first five weeks focuses on outdoor pursuits such as walking, canoeing and rock climbing, where self-confidence, esteem and respect can be developed. The second part concentrates on intensive practical and classroom employment training. There is just one weekend's home leave and disciplinary problems are dealt with through withdrawal of the few television or games privileges allowed. None of the offenders has ever attacked an instructor, who operate under rules which allow a minimum use of restraining force only in extreme circumstances.

The Airborne Initiative, temporarily housed in West Linton, a small town south-west of Edinburgh, is a combination of rigorous outdoor pursuits and preparation for employment with guaranteed jobs at the end. It is delivered by a staff with many years' experience of precisely these skills in military settings, and provides a model for the recruitment of more ex-military personnel into probation service work.

Roger Antolik, chief executive of Airborne, says the aims of the course are simple: to bring structure, direction, self-discipline and respect for authority into the lives of young offenders for whom all else has failed. An ex-Major with the Royal Anglians Mr Antolik dismisses the notion that bald "boot camp" discipline can achieve anything. His team of eight, including a serving regimental sergeant major on secondment from the Paras and men who have served with the special forces, help Glasgow's young toughs find a way out of their troubled past more through ruthless compassion than physical force.

"These guys are very vulnerable - they are searching and questioning. The first two weeks of the course are vicious for all of us, but the discipline, structures, training and dependence on each other keeps us going." The scheme, which is funded by Strathclyde and Tayside Regional Councils with Scottish Office backing, costs Pounds 4,500 for each young offender - payable whether he makes the grade and finishes the course or not. Funding also comes via Lanarkshire local enterprise company( equivalent to English TECs) for each lad found a permanent job, as part of the Airborne's role as an accredited training agency.

It's not a cheap alternative to custody, but with early evidence indicating that it is having a marked positive effect on recidivism. Paul Morron, Strathclyde's assistant director of social work, who is responsible for probation and after-care services, is keen to see it continue.

A decision on a three-year commitment by the Scottish Office worth Pounds 1.8 million is expected soon, but council reforms to be introduced next year leave the precise local government relationships with the Airborne Initiative in the future in some confusion.

Although overall, 40 per cent of the offenders don't complete the course, the drop-out rate was very low after the watershed of the three-week expedition. The relationships, mutual trust and respect formed during this period was critical to the success of the Airborne Initiative, Mr Morron said.

Philip Briggs, a 25-year-old ex-marines corporal in charge of the vocational training element of the Airborne Initiative, says the course originally started out as an outdoor pursuits scheme with training for work bolted on. But now vocational elements are integrated from day one, with visits to firms offering jobs or training followed later by classroom computer training, interview techniques, life skills, developing a CV, and work experience. Airborne also intends to introduce City and Guilds in basic skills.

Gerard Eadie, chairman of CR Smith glaziers of Dunfermline, has two graduates of the Airborne Initiative working in his wooden-framed window factory, where they can earn up to Pounds 200 a week with bonuses.

"These lads are creating havoc and we need to help them because the people who have got the CVs have more of a chance of helping themselves. We have to just accept that we need to give them a good job if we want this scheme to work. "

Back at Bonaly Country Park in the Pentland Hills, where Mick and his fellows are burning off patches of heather as part of a conservation programme, Duncan Monteith, senior ranger, is in no doubt about the quality produced after eight weeks with the Airborne.

"These lads are excellent workers - they don't have to be asked or told what to do. If I had four vacancies I would take them on."

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