A charity is giving teenagers a chance to give up a life of crime and train for a good job, reports Shirley Gibb
Andy Gunn uses a powerful analogy to explain how clients of the Rural and Urban Training Scheme view the world.
"If a prisoner of war escapes from Colditz, steals a motorbike for a quick getaway and knocks someone down with it, he won't care because everyone outside the walls of Colditz is the enemy. These kids see the world like that. They don't feel part of society. They feel alienated and anyone not part of their immediate circle is the enemy."
Mr Gunn used to be the project manager of RUTS, a charity which runs courses for 14- to 16-year-olds who have been referred by social workers, schools and the Children's Panel. First started in 1982 by volunteers, RUTS uses motorcycles as a focus in providing support and direction to teenagers.
"Most of the young people who come are bright and have potential," says Mr Gunn, "but they see themselves as having no role in society and have very low self-esteem. Most gave up on school, or school gave up on them, a while ago. We aim to challenge and redirect their behaviour. To do that, we have to engage with them. That's where the bikes come in."
The charity's premises at Newtongrange, Midlothian, consist of several large outbuildings. One houses the motorbikes; one is used as offices. The buildings are gradually being painted and refurbished by people sentenced to do community service work.
One of the RUTS courses, called Route 1, is aimed specifically at young vehicle offenders and is part of the Edinburgh's No Offence youth crime strategy. It is easy to see why it succeeds in grabbing the teenagers'
attention. This is a real workshop. Real motorbikes are being serviced with the proper tools and a trained mechanic is teaching them what to do.
For youths used to being told to stay away from vehicles, coming here and being encouraged to work on them must be exciting. But, as Mr Gunn explains, it is not an easy option.
"We want to make our youngsters feel welcome and part of a team, but we are also trying to enable them to move away from their previous behaviour. We do this by giving them responsibility and trust and in return they must show an ability to cope with authority.
"They will be asked to do boring but necessary tasks such as brushing floors and washing down bikes. They must work on their social skills, learning what is acceptable in language and behaviour. Time keeping and attendance are important.
"For kids whose lives away from here can be very chaotic, these skills are not easy to develop."
Route 1 involves attendance one day a week for six weeks, learning motorcycle maintenance and motor vehicle law. A key element is pointing out the relevance of school lessons to everyday life.
"We talk about the cubic capacity of a cylinder which they are actually holding," says Mr Gunn, "and point out that this is maths they are learning.
"They realise the importance of English as they read an instruction manual."
The course also includes input from outside agencies such as the police, ambulance services and drugs agencies to deal with issues the teenagers may have. The final day of the course is spent riding the motorbikes off-road.
After completing Route 1, those who want to - and who can take responsibility for not offending - can move on to a Scottish Qualifications Authority Training for Work course in mechanics which is financed by the Community Fund.
Vicky Brady, tel 0131 663 5736
One teenager who has done both the Route 1 and Training for Work courses is Deeko. He is 15 and in care. He attended the Rural and Urban Training Scheme for a year and a half.
Deeko stopped going to school some time ago and before RUTS became part of his life he was a persistent vehicle offender.
"Sometimes we just borrowed cars," he explains, "took them for a drive and took them back when the petrol got low.
"You only get caught if the owner notices the petrol has gone and the police find fingerprints.
"If I needed money I would take things from the car to sell."
Deeko has no doubt that he would still be living that kind of life if it wasn't for RUTS.
"This place has definitely made a huge difference to me. Because of it, I've got two SQA qualifications and a good reference when I look for a job," he says.
"One of the most difficult things when you're trying to stop offending is staying away from the people you used to hang around with. But I'm managing."
Deeko's story is not an isolated success. A group of six to eight youngsters were responsible for 73 offences during the three months before starting one of the RUTS courses. During the course their crime rate dropped to three offences, and in the three months after it rose to only eight.