Cheap even at pounds 44,000: Fees at Winestead cover sailing, skiing and sun-beds. But the school's methods for reforming young criminals do work, says Chris Arnot

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Gary gazed at the white BMW in the car park with something approaching love. 'Is that yours?' he inquired, wistfully. Alas, no. My humble Peugeot was parked nearby. Not so long ago, either would have been fair game for Gary, who once stole 26 cars in two months.

He is 15 but looks younger. Since he was two he has been shuffled between foster parents and children's homes. 'I found it difficult to concentrate at school,' he admitted. By the time he was 13, he was rarely to be found at his desk. He was just 14 when he started stealing cars.

Why did he do it? 'I like driving.' Who taught him? 'I picked it up from my mates.' Any accidents? 'A few.'

Thankfully, no innocent driver or pedestrian was hurt. But Gary (not his real name) was a menace to society. He was the sort of persistent young offender the Home Secretary had in mind when he promised the Tory party conference more Secure Training Centres for juveniles. Instead, Gary has spent the past seven months at a boarding school with fees nearly four times higher than those of Harrow.

It costs pounds 44,000 a year to send a child to Winestead Hall, otherwise known as the Small School, set in the flat fields east of Hull. But the school year lasts 52 weeks and every day is packed with activity.

The youngsters here do not have rich parents. Many have no recognised parents at all. They are in the care of local authorities and council tax-payers are footing the bill. Had the school's brochure been circulated at Blackpool, true-blue Conservatives would have turned purple.

Facilities listed in the brochure include tuck shop, fitness equipment and sun-bed. Pupils can use a 47ft yacht, two dinghies and a 100ft brigantine. Under careful supervision, they cruise around Britain's coastline, to Denmark and Sweden and the Baltic states. Students also go on at least three trips abroad every year. They might go camping in Spain, explore the Pyrenees or go skiing in Norway. There are 32 of them, including some of the most disturbed teenagers in England.

One was sent there by North Yorkshire County Council earlier this year after he set fire to a doctor's home. John Greenway, the Conservative MP for Ryedale, was disgusted. All a child needed to do now to get a free trip abroad, he observed, was to burn down a house.

The County Council had three answers to that. One: it was difficult to find any institution that would take a convicted arsonist. Two: keeping him under constant guard in a secure unit would cost at least twice as much. Three: reports from other local authorities suggested that the Small School has an impressive record of breaking the cycle of criminal behaviour.

Statistics to prove this are not yet available as the school has been open only since 1989. But a survey at its sister school in Norwich showed that 73 per cent of those there for two or more years did not reoffend when released back into society.

The survey was carried out in 1991 on 111 former students. Of those, 20 had left only the year before. Nine of the 111 were in further education, 11 were in other schools, 10 were in full-time and 17 in part-time employment. Another 11 were 'housewives', defined as girls who spend most of their time looking after children. All those categories are defined as 'doing well' - 52 per cent of the 111. But among those who have been at the Small School for two years or more, the figure rises to more than 70 per cent 'doing well'.

'If you can get somebody helped by this process, not just locked up, it's pounds 44,000 a year well spent,' said John Ransford, director of Social Services in North Yorkshire. His is one of 21 local authorities to send youngsters to the school. So what do council-tax payers get for their money?

From the outside it looks like any small boarding school. A cluster of red-brick Victorian buildings stands at the end of a lengthy drive with a football pitch to the right and immaculate herbaceous borders at the end. There is a gardener and a cook among the 25 staff. But no cleaners. 'We do all that ourselves,' said Gary, cheerfully. Bedrooms, classrooms, kitchen are cleaned by the students on a strict rotational basis. So are the ships.

'Sailing teaches them discipline as well as skills,' said the headteacher, Steen Thomsen. 'It's hard work on a boat and some of them have never worked before. They may get up at 3.30 in the morning and climb the masts in gale force winds.'

Like many of his staff, Mr Thomsen is Danish. Schools such as this have been established in Denmark for years, where they are supported by the state. Here they are run by a private company and depend on fees. The staff dress casually. Students address them by their first names and the head is no exception. 'When you've been out together on the North Sea in a Force 7, you don't stand on ceremony.'

Mr Thomsen says he can understand the anger of those who want to see offenders severely punished. 'But beyond the anger, we have to look for a wider perspective. Some of the youngsters who come here might not have been to school for three years. Some of them have been living on the streets. To teach them respect for themselves and for others, you can't just dump them in a cell. They need a structured environment from early morning until late evening.'

He broke off to answer the phone. One of the teachers was ringing from France, where a small party of students had just arrived with a transit van. They were heading for a fortnight in Spain. Why was it necessary to send children abroad? Wouldn't it be cheaper to stay at home?

'It's not much more costly to go to Spain than to Scotland. Yes, they need to know about their own country, but they also need a wider perspective. Last year we had a lad from south London who had never been north of the Thames. It does them good to learn about other cultures.'

They also learn the fundamentals of the national curriculum. Students stay in groups of 10 in classrooms with three teachers. There is much catching up to do. For emotionally deprived children who have turned their backs on conventional education, the most mundane achievements are significant victories.

Sharon, who is 18, now has a GCSE grade C in English. A few years ago, this would have been unthinkable. 'I was sniffing (glue) and stealing. I don't need to do that any more. I kept running away from home and they put me in one of those secure units. It was dead boring. I like it here.'

So, it seems, does the former arsonist from North Yorkshire. He, too, has given up glue-sniffing and taken to reading serious novels.

As for Gary, he planned to spend the afternoon writing an essay about George Orwell's Animal Farm. He was quite cheerful about it. 'The good thing about this place is that you're always busy. When you've finished work, there are all kinds of activities. It's properly organised. And I love the sailing. We took part in the Tall Ships Race. It was really exciting.'

But it would be nave to pretend that from now on life will be plain sailing for the students, or that all of them behave themselves. Their rooms are not locked at night and some abscond. One was brought back on a tractor by a local farmer. On another occasion, Mr Thomsen had to travel to Newcastle to persuade a student to return after one of his monthly weekend visit to his foster parents.

Discipline is imposed by extra duties (washing up instead of sailing) and the withdrawal of pocket money. Each student is given pounds 13 a week, of which pounds 8 has to be saved for clothes. The rest goes on batteries for personal stereos, sweets and cigarettes. The students are allowed to smoke as long as they do it outside. Alcohol and drugs, though, are taboo.

Some are on medication when they arrive. Robert, for instance, was so angry that he had smashed the bannisters in his former children's home. He had to be sedated. Not any longer. 'There was nothing to do in the children's home,' he said. 'Here there's a lot of hard work, but they're nice to you. It's like a family.'

Along with Sharon and Gary, Robert was keen to show me around the living quarters. The rooms were light and airy, with high ceilings and stylish furniture. All the bedrooms were clean and tidy. Robert proudly showed me his. He had a small television and stereo. A picture of Madonna gazed down on a bedside table on which lay the New Testament.

Formal religion is not on the agenda at the Small School. Morning assembly is devoted to current affairs and music. 'It could be rock 'n' roll,' said Mr Thomsen. 'It could be classical. I like them to hear all kinds of music and learn to read it.'

Every student is expected to attend an hour's choir practice every week. At Christmas, they will join with their colleagues in Norwich and Denmark to put on Handel's Messiah. Yes, some of our most persistent young offenders are being turned into choirboys.

(Photograph omitted)