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School cadet forces have moved to the front line of the Government's campaign to win the hearts and minds of the nation's youth. But is a double period on the rifle range really the way to imbue teenagers with community spirit? James Morrison visits Birmingham to see the young squaddies in action

Gopal Nahal is struggling not to fidget as his instructor smears camouflage paint on to his face. "Not on my turban please," he chides, as the green and brown make-up is applied in thick stripes across his cheeks and brow.

Moments later, the 15-year-old GCSE student is outside in the driving rain, a rifle slung over his shoulder. With his immaculate uniform buttoned up to his vividly defined chin, he cuts an incongruous sight against the standard-issue concrete sprawl of Birmingham's Lordswood boys' school.

Gopal, a Sikh from the deprived inner-city ward of Handsworth, is one of 75 Lordswood pupils who spend two hours of their weekly timetable training with the Combined Cadet Force (CCF), a scheme run by the Ministry of Defence in partnership with 253 state and independent secondary schools.

The CCF programme offers 14 to 16-year-olds the option of studying for a BTec first diploma in uniformed public services. The modular course is equivalent to four GCSE grades A* to C, and last summer 15 Lordswood boys passed with flying colours, sending the school's GCSE score up to 50 per cent, from 34 per cent in 2001.

Whether they are studying for a BTec or merely getting a taste of the CCF before deciding their options, the boys are offered an ambitious programme of outdoor activities. During school hours, they can go kayaking and sailing at Edgbaston reservoir, or take part in marching and shooting practice at a local Territorial Army barracks. At weekends there are field trips way beyond the city limits: orienteering in the Waseley Hills, and learning to parachute and build rope bridges at RAFStafford.

Gopal has no desire to join the military - he has his sights set on a degree -but he is enthusiastic about his CCF experiences, from summer camps to parade drill, and sees no conflict with his religious beliefs.

"Sikhs are split into two parts: saint and soldier," he says. "I'm completing the saint part in my community, and the soldier part here."

Lordswood is not a typical CCF partner. For one thing, it boasts a rich ethnic mix: 60 per cent of pupils are of Asian descent, 25 per cent Afro-Caribbean. It is one of just 52 state schools involved in the scheme and one of the few serving urban children.

If Gordon Brown has his way, more state schools will be looking at what the CCF and the Ministry of Defence have to offer. In his speech on "Britishness" to the Royal United Services Institute in February, the Chancellor of the Exchequer praised the CCF for its spirit of citizenship and pride in the nation's forces. He announced plans for a new pilot project, sponsored by business, to persuade more state schools to take part.

The planned expansion of the CCF scheme is part of a wider initiative designed to encourage volunteering among young people recommended by a government commission chaired by Ian Russell, chief executive of Scottish Power. Its report, published in March last year, proposed the establishment of a new charity to co-ordinate "community participation" among 16 to 25-year-olds, backed by pound;100 million of government funding and up to pound;50 million from business sponsors.

Companies signed up so far include HSBC, Channel 4, Vodafone and the FA Premiership. The charity's name and logo will be revealed at its official launch on Monday (May 8).

Gopal Nahal cites "team-building and leadership skills" as qualities instilled by the CCF which he expects to benefit from in later life. His view is shared by Sandeep Bhopal, 16, who believes the CCF has improved his assertiveness, something that will help him in job interviews.

Some boys are already achieving more than they might otherwise have done.

Joel Temple, 15, who is statemented for learning difficulties in literacy and numeracy, is heading for a merit in his first diploma. He says: "It helps you with everything, especially your confidence."

Lordswood CCF was established in September 2000, after geography teacher Neil Mackintosh, a former captain in the Staffordshire Regiment, persuaded the school's then head that the scheme could help tackle issues as diverse as obesity and truancy. Originally intended to be solely extracurricular, the scheme proved so popular that it was embedded in the curriculum, both through the BTecs and the recent establishment of a dedicated school department, thought to be the first of its kind in the UK.

The CCF "department" consists of Mr Mackintosh, who has relinquished normal teaching duties to take on a dual role as the CCF's "contingent commander" and Lordswood's "external partnerships" co-ordinator; and part-time instructor Linva McIntosh, who is also a sergeant in the Territorial Army.

The school is also creating a full-time post to oversee the cadet courses, funded through the new teaching and learning responsibility (TLR) system.

Lordswood, a specialist sports college, has taken the CCF to its heart in other ways too. The principal, Hayden Abbott, and his deputy, Ron Skelton - a former Royal Marine reserve with a shaven head and solid physique - encourage teacher applicants with military links. This applies to the uniformed services department but also, says Mr Abbott, "in other subjects which involve outdoor activity or field trips, such as geography, science and PE".

Mr Abbott believes the values of the CCF feed directly into other areas of the curriculum, and have brought tangible benefits in terms of health and fitness. When pupils join the CCF, their weekly dose of physical exercise doubles; they get two hours on top of the statutory two they get for PE.

"We've seen a definite improvement in terms of attitudes towards fitness among those pupils," says Mr Abbott. "We did a questionnaire recently on healthy lifestyles, and pupils doing the CCF are demonstrating a better awareness of how to eat well and the importance of exercise."

Discipline has also improved, according to staff. Caroline Ryan, an ICT technician, says there were strong reservations in the staffroom when the scheme was introduced, but she is among many who feel it's proved its worth. "The idea of teaching some of our boys to use guns was scary, but it's given them a sense of self-discipline and pride." She says one former pupil ("probably the most challenging in the school") is now "doing really well" in the regular Army, having left two years ago, aged 16, to join Mr Mackintosh's old regiment.

Of the eight pupils I spoke to at Lordswood, three expressed a desire to go into the forces full-time. But Mr Mackintosh, a bespectacled, bookish man who looks as if he'd be more at home in a shirt and tie than khakis, insists there is no indoctrination. "I saw this as a fantastic opportunity for the boys, as they don't have middle-class parents who can offer them these activities," he tells me in his "office" (a hut in the staff car park which, like the rifles and uniforms used by the boys, is supplied by the Army). "It's quite unusual for them to go on to join the Army."

Aliakbar Afsar, 14, a Pakistani Muslim, is one who says the CCF has inspired him to enlist. After calmly unloading five (blank) rounds at the firing range, he smiles: "Shooting's the best - and the annual camp. When I leave, I want to go into the Royal Engineers." His views are echoed by another 14-year-old, Mohit Behl, who says: "I joined the CCF to see what army life is like. I didn't want to go into it before, because the chances weren't available for me to see what the career is like, but I do now."

So will Gordon Brown's new vision of a CCF-fostered sense of Britishness genuinely promote values such as comradeship and self-reliance that can be applied to many walks of life? Or is it destined to become a glorified recruitment campaign for the forces?

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), is reserving judgment. "I can see the CCF being a solution in some schools, as it can give notions of responsibility, which is no bad thing," she says. "But I don't want any notion of Britishness to be tied up with militaristic aggression."

The idea of equating patriotism with armed service certainly seems to strike a chord with Gopal. "If it came to it, I would fight for my country.

My religion is important, but my Britishness is equally important," he says.

Back in Mr Mackintosh's hut, pupils scramble out of combat fatigues and scrub the last khaki smudges off their faces. It's Friday afternoon, the bell's ringing for home time, and the week's manoeuvres are at an end.

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