Education: Great new cures for the summertime blues: Southwark, south London: bored young people find that the police are taking an unusual interest in them. Diana Hinds reports on a pioneering scheme

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The Independent Online
'WATCHING telly, sleeping, eating and then more sleeping,' is how 13-year-old Andre, in the London borough of Southwark, describes an average day during the school holidays. 'Playing with my computer and messing about,' says Roderick, also 13.

For bored teenagers with no money and little chance of a proper holiday, the inner city has few charms during the long weeks of the summer break. But, while many of them may simply make life impossible for their parents or carers, for the police the problems are potentially more serious if some of these teenagers decide to take to the streets.

With that in mind, the police in Southwark, determined to find something constructive for local young people to do, last year initiated a summer scheme. This year it has almost doubled in size to become one of the largest in the country, taking in 750 young people aged between 10 and 18, many of them from deprived estates across the borough. For only pounds 10, the Southwark Youth Project offers them four weeks of activities, ranging from go-karting and dry-slope skiing to photography and music.

When they sign up for the project, the teenagers have little idea which of the 100-odd volunteers helping to run it are actually plain-clothes police. 'Please miss, are you a policeman?' is a fairly constant query at the start of the project. At the end of the month the nine or 10 policemen and women whose haircuts have not already given them away will reveal themselves in uniform.

'The idea is that working and playing alongside the police officers changes the young people's attitude towards them,' says David Webster, vice-chairman of the project committee. 'At the end of the project they realise that these super young men and women are 'the filthy fuzz'.'

'Sometimes people tell you that the police are moaning and angry, but they're actually quite friendly when you get to know them,' says Paul, who is 13.

As well as helping to improve community relations, Southwark police believe the project is already playing a part in reducing crime. In August last year, when the project was running, crime in the immediate area fell by 73 per cent compared with the previous year, burglaries fell by 37 per cent and arrests of young people fell by 10 per cent. The police hope the figures this year will show similar improvements.

None of this, however, would be possible without the efforts of local people. This year the project will cost pounds 50,000, raised from local and national charities and businesses, with a contribution from Southwark borough council. A team of eight youth leaders and site managers has been employed to oversee the operation, which is based at Waverley Upper School, Peckham Rye, but the bulk of the work is done by volunteers, many of them young people skilled in particular sports or activities.

Belinda Morgan, the project co-ordinator, says that six teenagers had had to be excluded in the first two weeks of the project for bullying or aggressive behaviour, and she was having to chivvy a number of them to help to pick up litter. 'But the most difficult thing is getting everyone together for the trips every morning; after that the rest is relatively easy.'

Every day about 550 children are ferried in coaches and minibuses from Waverley School to activities in other parts of London, Surrey or Kent. Last week, for instance, there was tenpin bowling in Lewisham, ice-skating in Streatham, or motorcycling (for the over-15s) at Crystal Palace, while a group of 48 went off to Maidstone, Kent, for a couple of days' camping.

At nearby Dulwich Picture Gallery, half a dozen 11- to 13-year-olds were having a morning's tuition from Nick Ashton, the gallery's artist-in-residence. After a demonstration of figure drawing, he had dispatched his pupils around the gallery to draw one of the Old Masters; they crouched on their portable stools, pencils in hand, deep in concentration. 'The children are wonderful - they come into the gallery and really take on the atmosphere,' Mr Ashton says.

Back at Waverley School, where the remaining 200 young people were spending the day, some of the younger children were trying to master the rudiments of proficient cycling, while others played football or basketball.

Under the trees, a knot of girls had evidently decided they preferred gossip and Super Mario to anything else on offer. 'It's boring here,' says Keisha, 12, 'I haven't really done anything much.' But even she admitted, in the end, that it was probably better than being stuck at home.

(Photograph omitted)

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