Camp UK gets off to a soggy start

24th March 2000 at 00:00
Large-scale plans to re-motivate Britain's disaffected youth over the summer holidays are foundering over the logistics, writes Chris Bunting.

HUNDREDS of thousands of Britain's school-leavers will be rounded up, taught the words to "Ging Gang Gooli" and instructed in the fine art of

roasting marshmallows by a camp-fire.

Or so you could be forgiven for believing after the blaze of publicity early this year trumpeting government plans to set up summer adventure camps for all 16-year-olds.

In press briefings which trailed Education Secretary David Blunkett's keynote speech to the North of England Education Conference in January, government spin-doctors woke journalists from their millennium hangovers with news of a massive programme of American-style summer camps to be offered free to all young people at the end of their compulsory schooling.

Orienteering, abseiling and survival skills training would be the basis of courses designed to develop youngsters' self-reliance, leadership and social skills as they stood on the threshold of adulthood. Thousands of teenagers who left school without qualifications and with no plans for further education or a long-term job would be targeted, allowing the education system one last attempt to grab their interest and get them into training.

The spin-doctors got the headlines they were looking for: "Young will go from class to camp" announced one newspaper, while another weighed in with "Free Summer Hols for Teens". But what must the civil servants have thought?

They faced the daunting prospect of finding safe outdoor accommodation for up to half a million teenagers a year and making sure they all gained the meaningful educational experience that would make the project worthwhile. All that would have to be achieved at public expense and using a corps of tens of thousands of trained professionals.

Two months down the line, much of the hype has dissipated and we can get a clearer idea of where Mr Blunkett's scheme, being planned jointly with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, might be headed.

While initial reports suggested that a national scheme would be up and running in 2001, it is now clear that the next two summers will be occupied with small-scale pilots aimed at developing the plan. We will have to wait until 2003 for government-sponsored summer activities to be available across the country.

The rhetoric surrounding the scheme has also changed. The Government now prefers to talk broadly about "summer activities" for all 16-year-olds, rather than focusing on "summer camps". Although much of the impetus for the initiative is understood to have come from Mr Blunkett's admiration for the camps of middle-class America, the opportunities offered to young people in Britain are expected to extend to community volunteering, work experience programmes, drama or music productions.

Charles Rigby, chief executive of World Challenge Expeditions, a leading adventure company, believes that, even with a scaled-down target of 200,000 young people a year, the outdoor activities industry will have to more than double its capacity by 2003.

While Mr Rigby is optimistic about the private sector's ability to make the jump, he acknowledges that it is likely to be doing it alone. The local authority outdoor centres, that once provided the backbone for the industry, have suffered budget cuts in recent years and in many areas have disappeared completely.

Bob Marsh, Staffordshire's principal education officer, believes that the outdoor education facilities in his area are better than most, but sees no immediate prospect of catering for all or even a large proportion of his county's 16-year-olds. The past decade has seen council provision cut by more than a third in Staffordshire. Even if youngsters were limited to one-week residential courses, Mr Marsh estimates he could cater for only about 2,500 teenagers every summer. That would fall well short of comprehensive coverage across the age group.

"The private sector provides a small amount of provision and the voluntary sector is impressive, but you can't just turn this kind of thing on like a tap. If you try to, you risk not giving a quality experience," Mr Marsh says. "You always teach young people something and it could just as well be the wrong thing as the right thing."

With that kind of warning ringing in their ears, the civil servants responsible for the summer programme know that failure is not an option. Two cabinet ministers are publicly committed to it and Number 10 is showing growing interest. Tom Bentley, director of the influential Demos think-tank, and a former adviser to David Blunkett, describes it as a key part of the Government strategy to reverse the increasing alienation of many youngsters from the orthodox school system. If it is even to start responding to this problem, the scheme needs to achieve unprecedented levels of success. The Duke of Edinburgh awards and the Scout movement have both harboured similar objectives, but have often found themselves catering to a clientele of already well-motivated, often middle-class youngsters. The Government has, instead, promised a nearly universal scheme, focused particularly on the under-privileged, alienated youngsters that have historically been hardest to get at.

Compulsory participation has already been ruled out. Stephen Peck, director of programme and development at the Scout Association, Colin Shearer, operations director at the Duke of Edinburgh scheme, and Mr Rigby all join a chorus of practitioners who say that you cannot force modern teenagers to do any kind of outdoor activity and expect them to gain from it.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, suggests pay or pocket money for participants, as an alternative way of ensuring wide participation. This option also appears to have been ruled out in the briefings surrounding the scheme's announcements and would anyway be beyond its pound;75 million to pound;100 million-a-year lottery-funded budget.

Instead, the Government will aim to "make these camps so attractive that youngsters all want to come on them" and the tactics for achieving this come straight out of the New Labour instruction manual.

The funding for the summer activities appears set to be delegated directly to children or parents. They are likely to be able to choose which activities offer the best opportunities, giving incentives to providers to offer top-quality programmes and sell them effectively to youngsters.

Pilots this year and next year are expected to fill in many of the blanks in the Government's approach and practitioners are "piling in" with their ideas on how the programme should work. Mr Rigby's company, for instance, is trumpeting private-sector-style marketing as a way of getting over the universality problem and exploring parental contributions to ensure that the Government's money reaches those most in need.

The Duke of Edinburgh's scheme is emphasising the importance of providing long-term structured programmes as a context for the "intensive activity" of the summer camps. Other pilots are pushing the use of music and drama in the programme and, as competition hots up for pilot funding, we can expect heavyweights such as the Scout Association to add their voices to the debate.

While many of the providers are sceptical about the Government's chances of producing what it has promised, few have any doubts about the benefits if it does succeed.

Bob Marsh, at Staffordshire County Council, cites the one-week residential course this year to which 11 long-term unemployed people over the age of 18 were sent. Immediately after the course, all of them went on to education, training and employment and 75 per cent are still in work.

"It can just transform them, start to give them a belief in themselves," Mr Marsh says.

"It is so important that we get these kinds of experiences to the people who need them, not just those who can afford them." 'A chorus of

practitioners says that you cannot force modern teenagers to do any kind of

outdoor activity and expect them to gain from it'

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