Bad boys, good sports

Alison Benjamin on a variant of zero tolerance
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A hundred of some of the most disaffected and troublesome youngsters in London, some only seven years old, will embark on a remarkable new crime prevention programme next month which combines the ethics of sport and the market.

All from the King's Cross area, they will join a course designed to develop team-building, leadership and problem-solving skills through sport and in the process instil self-belief and self-respect.

Proponents of the Youthwise scheme believe it plugs the gap between education and zero tolerance. While there is nothing new about harnessing sport to develop and discipline young people, the Youthwise approach to marketing its programme is novel.

Vouchers for sportswear, entrance to sports facilities and the chance to meet sporting heroes are promised to potential recruits. The organisers also hope to offer older participants job opportunities.

"Young people are our clients," says Geoff Thompson, director of Youth Charter for Sport, the organisation behind Youthwise. "We are brokers on their behalf, incentivising them to go on courses and providing opportunities for them to become integrated back into the community. In order to do that we have to speak their language. The youth are sophisticated consumers. They respond to the language of the market-place."

Thompson, five times British karate gold medalist, believes there is no point in preaching what is right and wrong to "the lost generation". "They know what is right, but they need the self-esteem, confidence and the opportunity to do it."

It may appear a morally bankrupt argument - give a "naughty" boy a chance to own a pair of the latest Nike trainers in exchange for his cooperation at being "good", even if he might otherwise steal to get the trainers. But Thompson is adamant that it is no hand-out. "We do deals with young people. We give them the chance to do better and they have to take responsibility for their actions."

His pragmatic approach seems to be paying off in Manchester, where YCS is based. There Trevor Campbell, 23, who was involved in drugs from the age of 16, says of his past: "It's what everyone else was doing. How else could I afford the trainers and pay for my sport? You know it's only a matter of time before you get caught, but you try and make as much money before it happens."

A year later coming out of prison, Campbell is a YCS ambassador, telling anti-social youngsters about the confidence and respect he has earned from sport: not because he has seen the moral light, but because YCS helped him to get a life. Before prison he was a promising player with the Manchester Giants basketball team. On his release YCS gave him the opportunity to rejoin the Giants, receive a bursary towards his training costs and set up a health and beauty business with his mother.

Present anti-crime policies are clearly failing - a quarter of known offenders are under 18, committing 7 million crimes. Reoffending rates are high across the country. Boot camps, the legacy of the Conservatives cost up to pounds l,900 a week per inmate. The jury is out on whether they should continue, pending an evaluation by the new government.

In contrast, Youthwise costs pounds 4,000 per youngster over 10 weeks, with YCS pulling together funding from central and local government, regional sports councils, the probation service, and the private sector which is attracted by the PR opportunities afforded by YCS's roll-call of world class sportsmen and women.

Youthwise is the culmination of four years of experience drawn from 40 projects with agencies and young people on Manchester's Moss Side and Hulme estates, which gained a notoriety for drugs, gangs and guns in the early Nineties. Thompson remembers the negative reaction to a multi-sports area he was trying to raise money for.

"People said why bother, they'd burn it down in two weeks. But it's still here three years on and perfect. Why? Because it is something they 'own' and can take pride in."

Leslie Chalmers, former chief executive of Hulme City Challenge, now heading the King's Cross Partnership, says: "Geoff proved to me in Manchester that he has the answers to link isolated, disaffected, cynical and feared youth. I used to drive home past the Agoraspace [multi-sports area] at two in the morning and see kids still playing basketball. God knows what they might have been doing otherwise."

If Youthwise lives up to its promise in King's Cross, Thompson hopes to roll out an identical programme to other inner-city areas, like a "McDonald's franchise". One target area is Westminster, where I was recently burgled by a boy who, judging by the calling card he left in our kicked-in front door - a small Nike footprint - was only about 11. I know who I'll be recommending for the Youthwise once overn