Light on the outside

9th April 2004 at 01:00
When Trevor Philpott left the Royal Marines, he wasn't ready for the quiet life. So now he devotes his energies to helping young offenders go straight. Angela Neustatter reports from Dartmoor

Trevor Philpott stands on the doorstep of Burdon Grange, the dilapidated manor house his charity bought almost two years ago as a residential centre for young offenders. It's the centre of his life these days. Stone lions flank the doorway and a lush, sweeping view of Dartmoor spreads out before him.

Beside him, two youths, pasty-skinned and fidgety - the legacy of the prison sentences they have just completed - crack jokes and josh with "Trev". But they might equally be venting fury with a vast sense of injustice that so often fuels their anti-social lifestyles, "without economising on the vernacular", Mr Philpott observes, his eyebrows raised.

A former lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Marines, where he received an OBE for modernising the training system for new recruits, Mr Philpott, 56, retired seven years ago. But rather than opting for the tranquillity of gardening, golf and languorous times with his wife, Liz, he decided he wanted to use his experience to rehabilitate young men aged 18 to 24 who'd been in prison and were at high risk of reoffending.

It was a challenge that opened his eyes. "I didn't realise my working life was child's play compared with the challenge of raising pound;1.6 million to get started and taking on a daily menu of volatile behaviour," he says.

Not that the difficulties would have stopped him, nor the trainees'

shocking stories of drug addiction, violence and sex abuse. Setting up C-Far (the Centre for Adolescent Rehabilitation) was an act of philosophical conviction and political determination. "We lock up an extraordinary number of our young people in the UK, on the basis that incarceration will reform them. It doesn't," says Mr Philpott, pointing to a 75 per cent reoffending rate among young prisoners within two years, and all too often within days or weeks of release. Back in prison each costs taxpayers pound;164,000 a year, according to the Home Office.

"It's such a wrong approach," he says, "if we want to help young people learn to feel good enough about themselves that they can become valuable citizens."

People thrive, he believes, when challenged and supported. "Those who are endlessly told they are no good, are given no opportunities to excel or feel cared for and admired, are very likely to toughen up and be against rather than with society. And that is how so many emerge from prison."

Since C-Far opened in June 2000 in a military training base near Okehampton, the programme has been developed and refined. Today's trainees, such as Tony, 23, take part in a day that begins at 7am and ends at 9pm seven days a week for 11 weeks. The approach is holistic and includes classroom-based activities, work-skills training, physical activity, group sessions, where experiences and feelings are shared, cognitive behavioural training such as anger management, and parenting courses, plus certificated courses in workplace first aid and community sports leadership.

The young men, who come straight from prison, are taken on confidence and team-building exercises such as hiking and rock climbing. In the closing stages they crew a sailing boat on a sea voyage. Fifty-four staff members work with up to 12 trainees per course at a cost of pound;1.3 million a year; around 100 trainees a year pass through C-Far in eight intakes.

Tony knew his life was going badly wrong. After a childhood in care, he resisted school and, aged 16, was expecting nothing from life. Drugs, and crimes to fuel his habit, landed him in court for affray, criminal damage, and, finally, actual bodily harm, for which he was sent to a youth offenders' institution. While he was there (aged 21) staff from C-Far, which is described as a "life-change" programme, visited and talked to him.

"They said they could offer me a chance to do something with my life.

I was detoxed inside but I know almost everyone gets back on to drugs the minute they are out. I was told their programme would keep me away from drugs and dealing, and offer me an alternative to crime if I wanted it."

Tony took up the offer at the end of his sentence. "I didn't have anything else lined up, it was funded so I could live for free, and it sounded an easy option. Actually, it's the toughest thing I've had to do, physically and emotionally. I found the regime nerve-racking when I arrived. People smiled, talked to you, were interested in you. I didn't trust it at first, but then I began to see the staff really were good, caring people."

He was surprised to find he enjoyed lessons, improved his literacy and did particularly well at maths. He learned computer skills - as all the trainees do - and will work as a roofer when he leaves to live in a flat not far away. "I've changed a lot," he says. "I used to get very angry as a way of dealing with anything difficult. Here I've learned to talk about my problems and try to find solutions. I feel quite optimistic about what is possible now, but I am worried about leaving because it's all up to me then. If I don't go straight I can see I'll end up on the scrapheap."

Education is a priority at C-Far, and the project achieves 94 per cent success in literacy, numeracy and communication skills, the majority of trainees achieving level two (GCSE-equivalent), having arrived from prison with an average reading age of seven. It is classed as a training centre and accredited by the national awarding body NCFE, and is a franchisee of North Devon college. In the most recent Ofsted inspection, in March 2001, C-Far was given an above-average, grade two mark.

Equally important is the follow-up phase. C-Far tries to find a home for every trainee who graduates - a team liaises with housing associations and local authorities - as well as a work or education placement and a mentor for nine months. They also have an open invitation to ring C-Far or visit the Dartmoor centre if they need help and support.

Mr Philpott knows he was regarded as "a romantic crackpot" when he started, so he is pleased to be able to point to a re-conviction rate that is 33 per cent lower than that of the prison system. He is convinced that with better funding from the Home Office, which is reluctant to give anything substantial, he could replicate these results on a far wider scale. Current costs are met by constant fund-raising, charitable donations, a mixture of small grants from the European Social Fund, education, housing, and job centres, plus a small contribution from the criminal justice system.

Sir David Ramsbotham, the former inspector of prisons, is unstinting in his praise and is upset that C-Far has so far been refused the level of state funding it needs. "Trevor is doing a wonderful job helping these disenfranchised young people to live decently in society. He should be given all the encouragement possible."

Trevor Philpott smiles: "What I'm doing is not rocket science. Just offering respect and dignity to youngsters who've never had it, and asking in return that they give themselves a chance."

C-Far, Burdon Grange, Burdon Lane, Highampton, Devon EX21 5LX. Tel: 01409 231665; email: support@c-far.org.uk; www.c-far.org.uk

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