Car maintenance project helps troubled teenagers avoid custody

A car repair and maintenance project is keeping convicted teenagers out of custody by putting them under a car bonnet. Louise Tickle reports

Teenage offenders in Kent are being given the chance to stay out of jail if they commit to learning the skills needed to fix cars rather than steal them.

The Rainer Medway Motor Project is set up like a proper working garage, and youngsters aged between 13 and 17 who have been offered an alternative to a custodial sentence attend one day a week as part of an intensive supervision and surveillance programme (ISSP).

This is not an easy option. Magistrates have to be convinced of the merits of imposing an ISSP, and the programme is then enforced by Kent and Medway Youth Offending Service in the hope of convincing young offenders to adopt a crime-free life.

For those who complete 20 sessions or more at the motor project, there’s the chance to gain a vocational access certificate and move on to further qualifications. Several young men now regularly spend one day a week at the garage where they receive the attention and coaching that many have never experienced before.

“We have up to a maximum of eight young people in the workshop at any one time,” says garage supervisor Robert Barlow. “You can’t have a really big group with two tutors to eight young men it means they listen more closely to you. And you can ask them questions individually, answer theirs and help them one-to-one with stuff. It all helps them to integrate. Once you start talking to them, they start telling you what they’ve done wrong. They’ve never had anyone take an interest in them before.”

The idea is to give young people a chance to learn skills that will point them in the direction of a trade. It’s a tough challenge: many of those who turn up have been getting into trouble for a while. “Some have real problems with reading and writing,” Barlow says. “Often their concentration is poor, and they can’t pay attention to anything in any real detail.

“We help them understand how to use tools properly and constructively, learn the correct way of using a car, always with a focus on safety. They’ll find out how to clean the oil out and how to check tyre pressures we’ll then get them to take off the suspension legs and then refit it all back together again.”

Over time, this type of activity is designed to help young men on the ISSP begin to solve problems for themselves. Fostering a sense of independence and achievement in a supportive environment helps to build confidence in young people who have often had a negative school experience.

“I’ll give them a car manual and ask them to find out how to fit a headlamp,” adds Barlow. “When a problem is made real, rather than just being a theoretical thing in a classroom, they start to gain an interest, and then you’ll find they’re learning how to read just as part of doing the job.”

It surprised Barlow and his fellow tutor that some of the young offenders on the ISSP scheme had never even heard of a CV. An IT suite is now available on-site with extra coaching available to help each young person create a CV reflecting the skills they have learned on their supervision order.

For those who take advantage of the opportunity, the project can be a chance to turn around their lives. “By the time they leave us, with those who want the help we see significant changes,” says Barlow. “There’s a young man with us now who’s been in and out of trouble all his life, but because he’s changed his attitude so much we’re going to put him through the Skills in Working Life certificate. We’ve seen real potential in him, and he actually came up to us and thanked us for what we’d done.”

What really counts, though, is what the young men think of their enforced time spent wielding a spanner. One 17-year-old on an ISSP at the project is certain it has made a difference.

“It’s really working – I’m going back to college in September,” he says. “You’re learning something. It’s not just fun and games.”

A 16-year-old adds: “The ISSP has given me lots of opportunities, like the motor project. It has let me try out mechanics and I’m thinking of doing another college course in mechanics after I finish this one.”

The way forward

● Small group numbers: individual attention means that young offenders get the chance to be personally encouraged, ask questions, and begin to feel that someone is taking an interest in their lives.

● Help with literacy, numeracy and IT skills: writing a CV can be daunting at the best of times, but translating what has been learned at the motor project into a useable CV that young men can use to demonstrate their new skills requires intensive support.

● Using real-life problems: this gives young people the chance to see the point of what they’re being asked to do, and a sense of meaningful achievement once they’ve learned a new skill.

Further information
Kent and Medway Youth Offending Service

Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme (ISSP)

This article appeared in the 24 May issue under the headline “Wheel of fortune”



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