That the army should be called in to take on the indiscipline of young offenders sounds like the sort of idea that would get delegates to their feet at the Conservative Party conference, stopping the applause only to wipe away a tear. But in Rhondda Cynon Taf, the second largest local authority in Wales, such an idea is a reality. And a successful one at that. But it’s that bastion of liberalism – social services – that’s surprisingly pulling this trigger.
Seeking ways to improve youth justice in the mid-1990s, John Crowley, now the Partnership for Youth co-ordinator, would cast a jealous eye at the resources on display in the army camps that he drove past. A friend of his, Lt Col John Wrangham (now group director for community services at Rhondda Cynon Taf), was then made commandant of the local army cadet force, which was embarking on Outreach – a youth community project.
“We were looking for each other,” Crowley recalls. “We started kicking stuff around and because we knew and trusted each other that helped bridge the gulf of cultures between our organisations. Even so, senior management still needed a lot of convincing.”
Convinced enough to agree a pilot scheme, the unlikely partnership of youth offending team and the 3rd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Wales had its first reveille. The partnership for youth project is an intensive four-day course (now run four times a year) of adventure training activities. Running from 6.30am to 11pm, young people aged 12-17 who are offenders or at risk of offending take part in a tough programme including assault courses, canoeing, mountain walks, rock climbing, abseiling and camping.
Despite the rigorous army discipline (the information pack has the following exchange: Q. As the army run it do you have to do everything you’re told? A. Yes)the project, now approaching its seventh year, has a 98 per cent completion rate, according to an independent evaluation carried out by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders.
Other figures are just as impressive, including the overall rate of subsequent non-offending of 76 per cent (with 62 per cent of previous offenders not re-offending). Parents and social workers are also interviewed about improvements in their young person’s attendance and achievement at school or behaviour at home. It has recorded a 91 per cent “positive impact”.
In 2002, girls accounted for 41 per cent of the intake (the courses are single sex). I attended the last course of the year. The sense of achievement and euphoria of the 11 girls at the presentation ceremony was remarkable. One girl said: “Brilliant! I want to come again.”
Another added: “I really didn’t think I could do those things. They [the army staff] were dead proud of me. I’m dead proud of me, too.”
Pride was also standing smartly to attention in the faces of the few parents who turned up. One said: “It’s really good. My other daughter’s been on this and she’s a different person now.”
One girl, who now wants to join the army, was clearly showing leadership during a final command task, where participants are given a physical problem to solve as a team, as she called out: “Come on! It’s not a science rocket!”
Young people are not deserted after completing courses either. The project offers further programmes, including a three-day advanced course, Prince’s Trust “taster” days, personal development courses and access to the army preparation course.
On the face of it, the armed forces and social services are strange allies. But for many young people their offending is rooted in a lack of achievement or worth. Their chaotic lives lack targets or structure. The programme, although relentless, tough and challenging, is based on the characteristics of the army itself: individual discipline, teamwork and trust. Put simply, it works. It’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, a science rocket.
– For more information contact John Crowley on (01443) 219 451 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Scheme: Partnership for Youth project
Location: Rhondda Cynon Taf
Staffing: Full time co-ordinator and two to three staff to accompany children on courses
Inspiration: To offer the opportunity to change the lives of young people
Cost: The course costs about £400 for each young person