The Prince and the inner-city paupers

Isn't the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme for young people a bit, well, uncool? Apparently not. Decca Aitkenhead reports

The building, down a twist of dingy streets, bears all the signs of worthy but embattled endeavour - against poverty, racial tension, inner- city despair. Yet the name gracing its steel-grilled entrance is wholly improbable: HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.

The Ravenhill centre in east London is the latest outpost of the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme. The scheme is experiencing a record year - over 100,000 young people have signed up in the past 12 months. A quarter of a million are taking part, including one in every eight 14-year-olds.

All of which is hard to square with contemporary notions of teenagers. Disaffected, dysfunctional and largely disagreeable, the modern adolescent is supposed to have no time for some antiquated royal picnic outing. And the current boom is not taking place in public schools, but in inner-city areas like Ravenhill.

The scheme was set up in 1956. All 14-25-year-olds may participate in a programme of sporting, practical and cultural activities, in pursuit of bronze, silver and gold awards. The scheme is non-competitive, sets personal goals, and is designed to nurture "essential qualities of citizenship".

But the scheme came in for heavy criticism in 1989, when a government report accused it of serving only middle-class achievers. In response, it set up a project to target inner-city youths, young offenders and those with special needs, and the youth service persuaded over 1,000 centres like Ravenhill to get involved.

In April Phil Hall, youth leader at Ravenhill, took on a group of ten 15-year-olds with severe behavioural difficulties. Seven have just completed their bronze award. "They were sceptical at first," he says. "Most came from broken homes, some were involved in drugs, all had given up on school. We took over after everything else had failed. All we've tried to do is to give them an opportunity to experience things outside the streets they live in, their little world of the East End."

"Well, I didn't want to do it at first," admits Bobby Sellick."But when they said I could go on a barge, I thought I'd give it a go." "Yeah," nods Stuart Head. "The barge was the best bit." "Copycat!" Bobby snipes. Anthony Briggs is shy. "I liked going on all the holidays. We went to Debden," he whispers. Kelly Sharland bounds in. "Nah, the best thing was beating them all up - no don't write that! To tell the truth, I was looking forward to it. I won't be forced into doing nothing. I just liked it and all." Stuart warms up a little. "The best thing was the challenge. And doing things you wouldn't normally do. It's a nice feeling when you do things as a group."

All seven have decided to go on and do their silver. "They've learnt that they can achieve," says Hall. "For many of them this is the start of a CV."

All over the country centres like Ravenhill are taking up the award. On a grey Monday morning at the Moss Side Youth Centre, in Manchester, a group of teenagers is preparing for a trip to Whitby. "Well, it's better than staying indoors, isn't it?" Madelaine Stringer has been involved since she was 14, and thinks it's no big deal. Are any of them embarrassed to tell their friends what they are doing? Blank stares. Is it not just a bit, well, uncool? More puzzled looks. If the award ever had an image problem, it doesn't seem to bother Moss Side.

Some of the group have taken part in a drug prevention initiative, designing T-shirts and hats. Others are going on a trip to Russia. More are just back, victorious, from a football tournament at Nottingham Forest, organised by the Football Association. Ironically, explains Dave Bradley, the area award officer, the only people who have had a problem with the scheme's street cred have been the youth workers themselves. "Most youth workers come from a fairly radical, socialist background, and in the early days it wasn't sold as something they'd want to be involved in."

Meanwhile, the teenagers are chaffing to be off. They have more pressing things to hand. They're going camping.

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