Second chance for many normally sent off in despair
It has been estimated that 20,000 of all 16 to 19-year-olds in Scotland do not go into employment, training or further education after they leave school (the so-called Neet group) and that many are either members, or on the fringes of becoming members, of Scotland's estimated 300 territorial gangs.
I talked recently to a few young people in some of the most deprived areas of Glasgow, many of whom are already members. They have become disenfranchised by educational failure, unemployment and poverty, and the only thing they have to hold on to is their Friday nights when they can get their bottle of "tonic wine", go on to the street and stand up for their scheme.
So are these youngsters doomed to a life of educational failure, unemployment and crime, or is there a way that education can re-engage them before it's too late?
One solution is the 29-week Soccer Success programme, organised by Glasgow City Council's education services and Rangers and Celtic football clubs. Young people are referred for a variety of reasons, such as truancy or behavioural problems, low self-esteem or confidence.
The programme runs in partnership with Glasgow Southwest Regeneration Agency, Careers Scotland, The Princes' Trust and a number of local employment agencies and further education colleges. The majority of attendees are boys aged 16 to 18, who are split into two distinct groups according to whether their interests lie in joinery, plumbing and construction or in sports studies. They spend half their week at Cardonald or Stow College and the other half at the football clubs.
Soccer Success mentors work with the young people to help them develop CVs and become equipped with interview skills. They engage them in regular football coaching sessions, which are combined with focused studies on diet and nutrition, first aid and the opportunity to gain SFA coaching certificates, as well as getting the opportunity to interact with computer-based coaching software packages.
Kevin, who is fairly typical of the young people I have met on the programme, explained: "Because we're not the greatest at doing sums ... they try and help us with something we are good at."
There are plenty of incentives for the kids to perform well on the programme - the opportunity to see their match commentaries printed in the Celtic View or the Rangers News, or the chance to appear at Celtic Park or Ibrox at half-time on a match day and demonstrate their coaching drills.
But the real key to the programme's success lies in the style of interaction the youngsters have with the coaches and mentors, and the more relaxed ethos they are exposed to. The uniform is a tracksuit, and the kids call the mentors by their first name.
Gary said the programme had given him a second chance: a year ago, he was facing the prospect of being kicked out of school, but he feels he has identified with the Soccer Success coaches.
Stevie explained: "You can get friendly with them, have a laugh, a joke, a carry on ... but at school you canny really be that way with teachers ... they teach down to you and you're sittin' on a chair lookin' up at them."
The study centres at both clubs are full of new PCs, loaded with the latest sports coaching software and computer games, plasma TV screens and interactive smartboards. Seating arrangements consist of comfortable couches littered with cushions.
Greg Statt, the community coach in charge of the Ibrox project, explained: "This is a classroom - but if you look around, it's a motivational tool in itself."
Marc Conroy, football development officer at Celtic FC, said all the coaches "try and treat (the youngsters) like adults ... getting the balance between the laugh and the joke and the actual serious side of it".
The pastoral approach of Soccer Success clearly combines well with the emphasis on vocational skills and active learning. The focus on "positive destinations" is helping to re-engage kids like Kevin, Gary and Stevie and show them that there is a purpose in life other than drinking, territorialism and crime.
During the closing speeches at the Soccer Success graduation ceremony in Glasgow City Chambers, it was revealed that, in the Celtic programme alone, 17 pupils from a total of 29 have now committed themselves to engaging in an FE college course next session, while another five are fixed up with full-time jobs.
The Scottish Government's More Choices, More Chances strategy highlights the need for recognising wider achievement, expanding choice for work-related vocational learning and developing a wider range of capacities in young people who suffer from poverty and social disadvantage. The kids I have met recently are beginning to benefit from this, but there are many others out there who need to be exposed to this model in their schools, before it's too late.
We need more of an emphasis on new skills-for-work courses, more general purpose vocational studies and more partnerships with our colleges. Combined with this, we need more emphasis on mentoring and less on didactic teaching and authoritarianism in schools.
As Kevin said: "At school, you get all these subjects you don't want to do but you know you need to do them ... but you're choosing what you want to do here."
It sounds as if Kevin feels he has learnt enough to make these kinds of choices. Let's hope our education system is beginning to enable others to do the same.
Ross Deuchar is a senior lecturer in Strathclyde University's faculty of education.