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Where care beats punishment hands down

Teenagers sailing through Standard grades, taking college courses in horticulture, making their own cartoon videos - nothing unusual about that, except they had all been written off at school and had returned the dubious compliment. They also happened to be the most persistent young offenders in their 12-16 age group.

If the hearings system struggles with too few options for youngsters most often in trouble, they need far more projects to work with like Freagarrach.

Based in Polmont and Alloa, in central Scotland, the pioneering multi-agency project spearheaded by Barnardo's invites young multiple offenders aged 12-16 to take part in a programme that is both supportive and taxing.

Children with convictions for anything from breach of the peace to attempted murder can spend three sessions a week with a project worker or a group. If they are still attending school, sessions take place outside school hours. If not, they may attend five or six times a week.

Victim awareness and reparation, education and work, exploration of why they offend - these are all important parts of a programme they can take for as long as they need. There are regular parents' support groups too.

Another important part of the programme is to get youngsters to make better use of their leisure time.

This isn't just about keeping them off the streets, says Kelly Bayes, the project leader. "It's saying: 'You have got skills and strengths.' A lot of them think they are no good at anything.

"We've arranged music lessons for people whose talent nobody has noticed. We get them involved in playing in bands, or football teams - doing the groundwork, going along and introducing them to the group. Football can help develop a team spirit.

"We capitalise on their interest and use whatever medium helps - it could be making a video, artwork, role play.

"If a child is being placed on an unruly certificate, we can respond by taking him overnight camping or on a fishing trip, which gives staff the opportunity over two days to look at what's going on. We are using leisure to engage with young people.

"We work closely with education support units here, helping young people get back into the school system part-time, negotiating with schools on what's feasible, working with particular teachers. We can even take young people to school and collect them again."

The project recently evaluated re-offending rates for 24 young people who completed the programme. A third of the youngsters had cut their re-offending by 90 per cent or more - and the average cut was more than 50 per cent.

It also makes financial sense. A Freagarrach place costs about Pounds 1,200 a month, compared with Pounds 5,000 for residential care and Pounds 7,500 for secure units. Scottish Office Minister Henry McLeish has been fulsome in his praise, which suggests the model may well be encouraged elsewhere in Scotland.

"Children's hearings are really supportive of us and we of them," says Kelly Bayes. "It's so much more effective to take a holistic view of young people - as opposed to the punitive approach being taken south of the border."

Freagarrach project, tel: 01324 718277

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