Kick start for better times

1st September 2000 at 01:00
Esther Read looks at two new Tayside projects which are tackling the problems of truanting and negative attitudes.

Every time an offending youngster is referred to a Children's Panel, the public purse stumps up to the tune of pound;2,000 (plus pound;3,000 setting up costs for the panel as a whole).

Multiply that by the cost in human misery - the effect on the victim, on the community at large, and on the offender's school community - and it's not hard to see why Kick It, Kick Off, a project spearheaded by Tayside Police Drugs Prevention Task Force, is attracting considerable attention.

The project aims to help youngsters confront their truanting and offending behaviour by providing a positive alternative. Football seemed the perfect vehicle - a game enjoyed by the majority, which had the added bonus of glamorous player role models, especially when local professional football clubs, Dundee FC, Dundee United FC and St Johnstone FC agreed to lend their support.

A 10-week football skills course was devised, taught by coaches Kenny Cameron (youth development officer with Dundee FC and physical education instructor at Dundee College) and Eddie Wolecki, coach with Brechin City. In addition to basic skills such as passing and control of the ball, the course focused on teamwork and the importance of health and diet.

Funding of pound;15,000 came from Scotland Against Drugs with a further pound;7,000 offered in kind from the various agencies involved. While the initial bid spoke of two courses with 12 youngsters on each, the scheme has been a fast-developing model currently set to involve almost four times that number.

Most of the youngsters have been referred by Dundee City council's home support service and behavioural support section, either from behavioural classes in schools or from special educational units outwith schools, though the project has also linked in with other projects in Perth (including a girls' Primary 67 football team).

An analysis of the 11 Dundee attendees (one dropped out) showed that they had come to the course with a total of 122 previous offences. Some were non-attenders at school, many were suspected of drug abuse, while others suffered from attention deficit disorder. During the 10 weeks of the course the same group recorded just three offences, while in the following six weeks no offences were noted at all.

In achieving such results, everyone involved acknowleges the role of Charlie Wilson, a community education officer with the behavioural support unit, who had the job of liaising between the youngsters, their families and the schools. Mr Wilson, an ex-miner, had reservations about the role of the police before the project - reservations which were quickly dispelled by his contact with the task force.

"Sergeant Storrier, who came along to talk to the youngsters about drug abuse, did more in terms of providing them with a positive image of the police than any PR campaign could possibly have achieved," he says.

The partnership aspect of the project was crucial to its success. "Kick It, Kick Off wouldn't have succeeded without the support of the schools concerned," says Wilson. "However, it was also important to work with the parents. Most of them were justifiably proud of what the youngsters on the course had achieved. Above all, it gave them a bit of self-esteem.

"In addition to the two afternoon coaching sessions, we built in a weekly two-and-a-half-hour evening session where we talked about issues such as offending, drug abuse and racism - all issues which also arise in sport.

"Two youngsters from the first course assisted me at these sessions by acting as peer support workers to the rest. One of them, Michael, who'd been very shy and withdrawn at the start, even went on to give three presentations to teachers at an in-service day at Castlepark School."

Sandra Cannon, assistant headteacher at Baldragon Academy, confirms that the project gave those involved "a focus and a purpose".

She adds: "They began to see that school could be a means of providing them with work experience, and some are considering going on to do a sports coaching course. We would be extremely keen to see the project continued and even extended to include a wider range of youngsters."

Hugh Sweeting, assistant headteacher at Morgan Academy, agreed that the course had "distinct benefits for some youngsters though with a time-limited project it's harder to make inroads on the difficulties experienced by others.

"Continued acceptance on the course was conditional on attendance and good behaviour at school and that raises issues of what you deem to be acceptable behaviour," he says. "Ultimately, projects such as this will be made or broken by the nature and quality of the relationships of those involved and on there being adequate follow-up."

Wilson agrees that the momentum must be maintained for the benefits of the course to last. Funding is already being sought to provide a full-time co-ordinator for Kick It, Kick Off, so that the scheme can be continued and developed. A parallel scheme, known as "Alter-8", offers young people nine different alternative positive activities (originally eight, hence the title) as a way of diverting them from difficult behaviour.

Activities include drama, dance, music, radio production, ice hockey, football, tennis, sports coaching and cheerleading. Experience with Kick It, Kick Off suggests that this may also evolve into a much more comprehensive package.

And the concept itself is spreading. Tayside Police has already received enquiries from police forces in Strathclyde and Liverpool, interested in setting up something similar in their own areas.

"I've got something to lose now," says 16-year-old Michael, who was a persistent truant before his involvement in Kick It, Kick Off, "so I try to keep myself out of trouble. Before, I just didn't bother."

He has gone on to become a peer educator on the scheme. He's also coached Ancrum Road Primary School's football team and says: "It gives you a good feeling when the younger kids look up to you." He's given presentations to teachers, he's had work experience at Dens Park and is looking forward to embarking on a sports and coaching course at college. Longer term, he hopes to get a job at Dens Park, possibly as a greenkeeper. He also hopes to be taken on as a sessional youth worker as and when the next Kick It, Kick Off course gets the go-ahead.

Mad For It is an initiative that aims to raise the profile of youth activities and facilities across Tayside. Described as "a celebration of young people who have chosen not to take drugs", the project is yet another of those co-ordinated by Tayside Police Drugs Prevention Task Force.

As Sergeant Storrier, the project manager, explains: "Early intervention and providing youngsters with an alternative to the drug scene are key to preventing them sliding towards drug abuse. However, even where facilities do exist, youngsters may either be unaware of them or fail to see them as exciting or relevant.

"Adverts in the local paper or poster campaigns are often ineffective since these are seldom read by the target group.

"Our aim is to employ those means of communication, which do attract a youthful audience. These include social marketing techniques - everything from famous personalities to CD-Roms - to capture the imagination of all youngsters. We hope that both youth providers and young people themselves will take the opportunity to become involved."

Phase One of Mad For It began in August when Radio Tay started advertising for youngsters to enter local auditions around the region. The prize is the opportunity to perform on stage alongside "some top bands and a TV personality" at a major concert to be held in Dundee's Caird Hall in November. The nine winners will spend three days working with their local drug prevention officer and a video company to make a film about relevant youth activities and events in their area.

Each bandindividual will have the opportunity to learn dance routines for the concert at Dundee College's School of Contemporary Dance and to record a track of music in a professional recording studio. All nine tracks will be available on an enhanced CD while the 10th track will feature an edited version of the video footage from Angus, Dundee and Perth and Kinross. The CD, which is playable on both normal CD players and by computer, will also have Internet links to other drug awareness websites.

Around 1,000 youngsters are expected to attend the free show which will be broadcast on Radio Tay and the Internet. Between the performances an edited version of the video will be shown on large screens at the back of the stage. Representatives from the various groups will also be on hand with more detailed information and an edited version of the event will be made available on the Drug Team's website at www.dat.org.co.uk. The project will reach its climax in March 2001 with the winning youngsters performing at three under-18s discos in major commercial nightclubs throughout the area.

These will be advertised on Radio Tay, with free tickets on offer to those who can answer a few simple questions about the facilities in their area. All youngsters attending the discos will also receive a free copy of the enhanced CD, while further copies will be distributed to school libraries, youth organisations and other relevant places.

Mad For It is funded by Scotland Against Drugs to the tune of pound;50,000 with a further pound;35,000 raised from local organisations either in the form of cash or in the provision of services in kind.

As Sergeant Storrier is keen to point out, this approach "not only provides credibility to youth activities and facilities which some youngsters may not have thought of using, it also creates positive encouragement for those who are already involved and has the potential to make their commitment greater".


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