Pupils considered likely to drift into crime are being offered a new deal by schools in Kent. Under the arrangement, they agree to attend school - and to behave - at least four days a week during their final year. In return they get one day a week out of school, doing something that really interests them. "We take them aside and say, 'What's your real passion in life?' Then we offer them that, one day per week," says PC Pete Lerpiniere, of Kent County Constabulary, which set up the scheme. It has several aims: to reduce truancy and juvenile crime rates, to improve behaviour in schools, and to offer difficult pupils a last chance when they are in danger of permanent exclusion.
The School Time Enterprise Programme (STEP) is in its second year in Kent, and placements so far have included part-time work at Brands Hatch - the motor racing circuit - in an Afro-Caribbean hairdressers, and conservation work in the countryside. The programme operates in seven Kent schools, involving more than 20 young people. Matthew is one of them. With his gelled hair, huge shoes and bobbing Adam's apple, he looks part-man, part-child - and this is now reflected in his weekly schedule. From Monday to Thursday he dons the maroon sweatshirt of Medway Community College in Chatham and goes to school, but on Fridays he puts on his overalls and reports for work at a local garage.
Before embarking on the scheme, Matthew had been excluded from school on a number of occasions for violent outbursts. He says he prefers work, and the placement has motivated him to try to control his behaviour. "You feel more independent there," he says. "At school, you've got people telling you what to do." Since joining the programme, he has mainly stayed out of trouble at school.
The scheme is not a panacea, says Wendy Davies, head of Medway Community College. She started as head of the new school when it opened in September 1995, determined to turn around what previously had been two local comprehensives with poor reputations. "We had inherited a large number of very disaffected boys, who hadn't toed the line in school for years," she says. "There was no doubt that those young men were all set for failure. You could say we are now depriving them of a day's education, but the fact is the ones we are targeting were getting no benefit at all from the education they were receiving. This programme means we are actually offering something they can relate to. They want to be out of school, and see themselves as having some choice."
Overall, Mrs Davies feels the first year of the scheme has been a success with some of the most intractable pupils. "They have been able to stay in school, without being excluded, and take at least maths and English GCSEs," she says. They also get a certificate for completing the 40-week scheme. Mrs Davies has rebutted protests from some parents that bad pupils are being rewarded. "The wonderful pay-off for the others is that these people who mess up their lessons are removed for some of the time, and their attitude improves," she says. And although the scheme does occupy staff time for support and administration, it is time that was being taken up anyway by the most troublesome pupils. "I diverted staff from spending time telling these kids off to doing something positive with them," Mrs Davies says.
Medway Community College has a difficult catchment area. Unemployment is common, children have low expectations and self-esteem while there are high rates of teenage pregnancy and convictions for car theft. Poor school attendance is a real problem, says Mrs Davies, "because if you're not going to get a job there's no point in education". But while the benefits of STEP for the schools are reduced truancy and less disruptive behaviour, PC Lerpiniere's bosses want eventually to see a reduction in juvenile crime in the county.
On offer to limited numbers of 16-year-olds, the project is not a soft option for unruly young people. They are selected according to criteria that include school failure and exclusion, truancy, bullying and disrupted home backgrounds. Many, to use the police jargon, already have a club number, or previous conviction. PC Lerpiniere is one of those policemen inside whom a social worker wrestles with the neat man in well-polished shoes. He speaks with evident pleasure of the success stories: the "lad in Ramsgate we've turned around"; the boy who requested extra maths lessons to enable him to use fuel gauges on racing cars; and the one who joined the sixth form, confounding all predictions.
"Most have been failing left, right and centre," he says. "We view this as the last realistic chance of preventive work before they get involved in the full-blown criminal justice system."
A number of the young men and women involved in the STEP pilot last year went on to be offered work by their volunteer employers. The work placement is the most influential aspect of the scheme; how appropriately the young person is placed, and how well the employer looks after them, are crucial factors. "It's no good throwing them into the big adult world of work without support, " says PC Lerpiniere. "There has to be mentoring that goes with it."
With money from the Grants for Education and Support Training scheme about to run out, the STEP scheme must be funded from elsewhere next year. PC Lerpiniere is working on raising enough money from business - the target is Pounds 100,000 - to have the programme operating in up to 50 schools, with support from four full-time co-ordinators.
"I believe it will make a tremendous impact," he says. "Even if we have a 50 per cent success rate, the saving in crime terms is tremendous."