Ministers are impressed by a scheme that drafts in soldiers to teach under-achievers, reports Amanda Kelly
AS 17 youngsters stood nervously in the drizzle waiting to take on a tough military assault course last week, most agreed it was a small price to pay for getting out of science and French.
A term and a half ago, they had not been sure. Offered the chance to miss two half-days of school in return for lessons with army instructors, they had feared American-style "boot camps", with bellowing officers and punishing physical exercise.
At that time, most were struggling with their studies or in danger of exclusion. The idea was that the scheme would provide them with an escape from mainstream schooling. Now, the pupils from Wayland community high in Watton, Norfolk, say they are glad that they agreed to take part.
The programme is one of two pilots - the other is in Newcastle - in which retired army instructors have been drafted into schools to help tackle disaffection, discipline problems and truancy among Year 10 and 11 students judged unlikely to obtain good GCSEs. They aim to boost these pupils' self-esteem, teamwork skills and employment prospects.
The pilots have proved so successful that last week the Government pledged pound;600,000 to expand the programme to Manchester, Merseyside, Leicester, Bristol, the West Midlands and London.
"One of the reasons we are having so much success with the youngsters is that in their eyes, we somehow have more 'street cred' than teachers bcause we have travelled the world doing seemingly macho things like parachuting out of aircraft," explained former sergeant Bertie Bertenshaw, one of a team of three ex-soldiers assigned to the Skill Force team. "Many of them lack strong male role models in their home lives so we can connect with them on that level too."
But the scheme is not just about clambering over walls and swinging on ropes. In fact, the visit to Colchester barracks was a one-off treat and two-thirds of the sessions are actually spent in the classroom brushing up on basic skills.
The 15 boys and two girls are being guided through the two-year ASDAN award, a curriculum-based programme that covers everything from information technology and problem-solving to numeracy and community work.
They have also sampled physical activities such as mountain-biking and basketball, as well as achieving their St John Ambulance First Aid Certificate.
"I used to find lessons boring and irrelevant, but the stuff we learn with the army officers is much more practical and fun," said 14-year-old Martin Gisborne.
"We get on with them better than with the teachers because they speak to us like adults," said Barry Ford, 14.
For Adam Titcombe, also 14, who admits he was "always getting into trouble" at school , the sessions have been a chance to make new friends and channel his energy more constructively.
"I didn't know what to expect at first, but now I think it's one of the best things I've ever done," he said.