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Straight talk stops the rot

A London school's community work has won it extra funding, reports Emily Clark

If Khalid Karwani had not been encouraged to talk about his worries as a teenager he would probably be in jail.

At 14, he was part of a group which played truant, stole, took drugs and mugged people. But a weekly discussion class at Acton high school in west London changed his life. The class, which he attended for two years, involved 14 students from different backgrounds talking about anything from the strict regime of home life to getting into trouble with teachers and gang fighting.

Now he is 24 and a tutor on the course which helped him. He spends three days a week working with teenagers at the Parent Pupil Partnerships Project in Acton. The service runs vocational courses, therapy sessions and discussion groups for about 300 young people a year.

And Acton high has been given the opportunity to expand its links with the project through the Government's pound;52 million extended school programme. It is one of 61 schools in the UK selected this week to take part in the drive to broaden community involvement.

Mr Karawni's parents moved to Britain as refugees from Afghanistan in 1987.

In the evenings they expected him to pray and read the Koran with his seven siblings but during the day he would bunk off school and hang out with friends smoking cannabis.

"I was not used to the freedom that school allowed," he said. "Before I joined the group I was confused and unfocused. I only went to school to see my friends.

"Just talking about these things helped me to communicate better, to respect other people and their feelings. It stopped us from stealing, mugging and taking drugs."

He believes that treating students as equals and encouraging them to express themselves is the only way to counteract the culture of crime and drugs. "I am like an older brother to them - they ask me things which they cannot ask a teacher," said Mr Karwani. "Young people need to feel welcome in the adult world. A lot of them have not been given the opportunity to talk."

At Acton high, a pound;162,000 grant will be used to develop a community centre for prospective and current pupils and their families. The school will also develop a health service and build an arts centre for use out of school hours.

It was selected because of the local community's needs and its track record. A women's group which attends the school at lunchtime is popular with Muslim girls, a Somali homework club has just been set up because of parental demand and there are frequent residential weekends and evening classes.

Lesley Hall, head of the 1,200-pupil comprehensive, said: "The money will enable us to extend our work even further and open up the school premises outside normal hours. We can make the school a real centre, offer new services and develop a community spirit."

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