A useful exercise?

For those children who are not academic and are at risk of being
alienated by school, an army-backed programme of outdoor pursuits
and life skills is offering an alternative route to inclusion. Alex
Dobson reports.

Finding ways of motivating teenagers who feel that school has
nothing to offer is a major challenge for parents, teachers and the
government. Among education secretary Charles Clarke’s
answers is to invite army officers into school to work with
disruptive pupils.

The scheme, known as SkillForce, first began two years ago when
it was piloted in schools in Newcastle and West Norfolk. It was
considered such a success that it has now been extended to 13 local
authorities across the UK. It is part of an attempt to make school
life more exciting and meaningful for young people who find many
academic subjects unappealing.

Independent research has shown that the project has been
beneficial for those taking part and is particularly useful in
helping to encourage pupils to attend school. Exclusions were
reduced by an impressive 70 per cent and non-attendance by 90 per

Schools taking part in the pilot schemes found that as well as
falling truancy rates, juvenile crime was also reduced as children
had been more willing to stay in school during the day. Another
observation was that the strategy seems to be particularly
effective for boys who find their army tutors to be attractive role

Because of its success so far it is likely it will be used more
widely across the UK. It is already operating in parts of Scotland
and Wales as well as in several English inner city areas.

So how does the scheme work in practice and does it really make
a difference to the lives of young people?

One area where SkillForce has been running successfully is
Knowsley in Liverpool. Here, Simon Salt is team leader and, with
three ex-army colleagues, he works with schools to offer pupils the
chance to learn a range of vocational skills. Salt himself spent
seven years as an officer with the 1st Battalion, The Queen’s
Lancashire Regiment, leaving as a captain before becoming a
SkillForce team leader.

Typically, he says, the young people attending SkillForce
sessions will have dropped two GSCE subjects which gives them the
time to take part in the programme.

Although there are regional variations, the young people who
have been identified by their schools as likely to benefit will
usually spend two sessions per week with their army tutors. The
SkillForce teams work with a link teacher in the school, either a
head of year or a staff member who runs the alternative curriculum
programme. Where there are discipline problems, army tutors seek
advice from professionals, says Salt.

“In school we work with groups of around 20 teenagers for one
morning and one afternoon each week. They will work toward key
skills, such as communicating better and solving problems through
written assignments and library research. But they will also come
equipped for sports sessions or outdoor activities. There is an
in-built flexibility that means we can combine work, say, on an
environmental project or learning something such as first aid, with
sessions on the sports field, working on team games,” he says.

The children get out of school throughout the year to learn
navigation, canoeing and climbing. Because there are always two
instructors to each group, there is an opportunity for those who
need it to have one-to-one tuition, he says.

One of the highlights of the year is the five-day summer camp.
Salt says this is where many of the lessons learned throughout the
year are put into practice.

The group will be working toward gaining their expedition
qualification for the Duke of Edinburgh bronze award. But much more
importantly they will be called upon to use the communication and
practical skills they have been taught.

“For 24 hours during the camp they are expected to be totally
self-reliant. They take part in an 18-mile trek across hill country
carrying all their kit and they will sleep in an overnight camp in
groups of four or six. Carrying their own ration packs they are
expected to move through a series of checkpoints that are
supervised by instructors and reach a campsite where they cook
themselves a meal,” he says.

“Sometimes they find it gruelling, sometimes they get themselves
lost, and they can be cold, wet, hungry and tired but they work
together and this builds their self-esteem because they solve the
problems they are faced with. They find that they really need to
communicate and support one another,” he adds.

Although the instructors all have military backgrounds, Salt is
keen to emphasise that all the tutors are sensitive to the needs of
the children taking part.

“There is absolutely no question that we are operating some form
of boot camp with people turning out in uniform and expecting
children to take part in drills and military exercises. We dress
informally and the young people are never coerced into taking part,
but we do draw on the experience of army life including the
leadership and motivation skills that can work to bring
disillusioned teenagers back into school”, he said.

One such teenager is 15-year-old John Williams who had an
attendance record of only around 5 per cent in year nine. While
taking part in the programme the following year his attendance
increased to 95 per cent.

Defence secretary Geoff Hoon has acknowledged that the scheme
could indirectly boost recruitment to the armed forces, but Salt
insists that in Knowsley the scheme is not being used as a military
recruitment campaign.

Whatever its impact on soldier numbers, SkillForce clearly is
playing a positive role for some young people. But as Pam Hibbert,
principal policy officer with Barnardo’s warns, such a scheme
can only ever hope to be one small piece of the jigsaw of support
needed by the most disadvantaged children in society.

“Clearly, because there is such an emphasis on academic
achievement and league tables and targets, it has become
increasingly difficult for schools to give individual attention to
children who are having difficulties and so programmes that offer
this kind of attention are welcome,” she says.

“There are also issues about male role models in schools because
teaching tends to be dominated by women, so having more men in
school is also positive. But there are concerns over who decides
what is being delivered and there is certainly an emphasis here on
what appear to be male-orientated, competitive military-type
activities,” she adds.

Meanwhile, SkillForce marches on and it seems to be making a
difference simply by offering young people the chance to develop
competence and confidence in practical skills which the traditional
school curriculum cannot provide.

About SkillForce

The scheme is a joint initiative between the Department for
Education and Skills and the Ministry of Defence. It is based on a
model used in independent schools for combined cadet forces, and
aims to further young people’s employment opportunities by
improving their attitude and reduce truancy, crime and

SkillForce currently targets young people between 14 and 16
years of age but there are plans to introduce the scheme into
primary schools in a bid to re-engage pupils who are already
beginning to lose interest in school life.

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