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Truancy given the boot

Newham council is reaping the benefits after offering students free sports facilities. Sophie Kirkham reports

Free access to sport in one London borough has helped to reduce juvenile court appearances by 38 per cent in a year and halve truancy rates over three years.

The results have astounded officials in Newham, east London, who are now planning to extend evening programmes up to midnight this summer to combat late night crime.

Truancy levels between 2002 and 2005 have halved from 1.79 per cent to 0.9 per cent with total absences down 21 per cent. Attendance is now at 94.29 per cent.

Between April and December 2004 and the same period last year, there was a 27 per cent drop in arrests of young people, a 24 per cent reduction in first-time arrests and a 13 per cent fall in arrests of persistent young offenders.

"Maybe they are boxing, fencing, playing football or going to the gym instead," said Ian Corbett, mayoral adviser for anti-social behaviour, crime and community safety.

The figures for juvenile court appearances are even more impressive with a reduction of 38 per cent in total appearances, and 25 per cent of first-time appearances. Almost 9,000 youngsters use the free facilities but all of Newham's 34,000 young people can take advantage of the scheme.

Around 800 children deemed at risk of becoming offenders are given special attention.

"We are not soft on them, those children are coerced by the youth offending team and the probation service into taking part as they won't turn up otherwise," said Mr Corbett. "Some get quite enthusiastic, while others are still hard work."

The scheme was inspired by London's Olympic bid three years ago, when swimming pools opened their doors free of charge during the school holidays. It is now hoped that every child in the borough will have organised and free sports facilities within a quarter of a mile of their home.

With a pound;36 million annual budget to tackle anti-social behaviour, the council believes "a few million" on extra sports facilities and clubs is money well spent.

On Tuesday evening 30 young boys aged between eight and 15 took part in a football coaching session on an estate in West Ham as part of Leyton Orient's community sports programme.

Tope Ajayi, 15, said: "I have got friends who hang around the streets because there is nothing to do, but they all like football and this keeps people off the streets."

Abdullah Ahmed, 12, said: "Usually I would just play with a ball by myself in the street but this is a good idea to keep boys out of trouble."

Peter Nicholson, head of Newham's youth offending services, said: "The figures are too much of a coincidence to ignore - the football clubs are full and crime figures are falling."

* sophie.kirkham@tes.co.uk

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