HL Deb 27 June 2002 vol 636 cc1547-62

6 p.m.

Lord Freeman

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government how successful the Ministry of Defence's Skill Force pilot schemes have been in addressing the problems of school truancy and exclusion.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, when the Minister returned, he kindly said that he hoped that the House had not been inconvenienced. There has been absolutely no inconvenience. One knows what pressures Ministers are under. I am very pleased that it is this Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Bach—who will be replying because of his position in the Ministry of Defence and also, I suspect, because of his interest. So we are very grateful.

Indeed, there is some advantage to your Lordships. Because this is last business we are allowed a little extra time—12 minutes—on what I believe to be an important subject. I also thank other noble Lords for taking an interest in what may seem to some arcane subject but which actually is extremely important and presages important further changes in the future.

I declare an interest as the president of the council of Reserve Forces and Cadets Associations in the United Kingdom. For the benefit of your Lordships, the Reserve Forces and Cadets Associations, which many of your Lordships will remember as the TAVRs—the Territorial Army and Volunteer Reserves—fulfils an important role. The council is the overarching body which looks after the 13 independent associations covering the different regions of the United Kingdom.

For the purposes of the debate, I put on record that there are 125,000 cadets in the United Kingdom. Later, I shall have something to say about their role, and their complementary role, to the skill force initiative. But I am speaking in a personal capacity. I do not in any way intend to speak for my colleagues up and down the country who are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves in the reserve forces and cadets associations. However, I believe that I capture the spirit of support of many of them, both those who staff the individual associations and those who sit on the governing bodies.

I say at the outset that I very much welcome the initiative of the Ministry of Defence in launching the Skill Force initiative. I congratulate the Government on the initiative. I hope very much that it will continue and grow. Therefore, I hope that there will be very much a multi-partisan approach to the issue today.

It may help your Lordships if I briefly try and describe what Skill Force is. Clearly, the Minister will give more information, but for those who read a debate sometimes it is helpful at the outset to see the context of the debate rather than going directly to the Minister's speech and then reading backwards.

Skill Force is staffed by former warrant officers and officers from the Armed Forces. They provide skills training to—typically—14 to 16 year-olds. At the moment, the total is about 1,200. That is 1,200 set in the context of 125,000 in our cadet organisations. Those youngsters perhaps have been playing truant from school and/or have been disruptive in the classroom and therefore have been excluded.

Skill Force takes those youngsters for one day a week, perhaps two half days, out of school—they must go back to school for the other four days—and provides them with some non-military training, skills we would describe as "essential skills" such as how one works in a team; how one relates to and communicates with people—courteously and politely and directly; how one tackles everyday problems; how one organises one's day; how one relates to one's parents; and how one relates to one's teachers. These are basic skills which will lead in some cases to, for example, the Duke of Edinburgh's bronze award or other qualifications.

The purpose, I understand, is that when youngsters reach 16 they stay on at school for further education in the sixth form, enter some form of training scheme or go into employment. They do not become a social walking disaster and end up either on probation or in prison or, as adults, replicating their past behaviour.

I understand that the early results have been encouraging. For those who have participated in the scheme so far, attendances at school are up—in other words, truancy rates are falling—and fewer have been excluded by teachers for disruptive behaviour.

All that is good news. I want to make the point forcefully that this scheme is non-military. The youngsters are not in uniform; they are not handling weapons. It is unlike the American scheme—the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps scheme—which is very much aligned with the services. It perhaps has some of the same purposes as the United Kingdom scheme, but this is non-military.

Briefly, perhaps I may sketch the background to the problem of truancy. We know that the Government have set a target to reduce truancy by one-third during the year 2002–03. Extra money has been provided for schools to tackle poor behaviour. The figures do not seem to have changed very much—even in the last reported year—over the last five years. But, on average, about 1 per cent—and here I am talking about pupils in maintained secondary schools—regularly have unauthorised absences from school of at least half a day a week. That is a disturbing number. These children are playing truant.

There is, I believe, a great correlation between truancy and lack of educational achievement. Frankly, truancy is related. There is a higher degree of correlation with schools in deprived areas, and, therefore, perhaps a lack of parental support in some cases.

We know that education welfare officers and local police patrol the streets to find truanting children. Police have the power to return children to school. Education welfare officers talk to parents and remind them that they have a legal duty to make sure that their child is at school.

Many of your Lordships will have seen the recent BBC report. In May, almost 12,000 children were caught playing truant in sweeps of the streets and surrounding areas close to the school in 34 education authorities in England with the worst absenteeism record—12,000 children.

Sanctions we know about and which have been discussed in recent weeks are imprisonment of parents, cuts in benefit payments and police in schools. I am not addressing those issues. I am supporting the concept of Skill Force, which is more about encouragement and trying to teach basic human skills to youngsters in this category.

The criticism made in some quarters—I believe it is a minority—that somehow this initiative is in competition with the cadet forces is misplaced. I cannot trace at the Ministry of Defence any switching of resources away from supporting cadet organisations to Skill Force. I hope that those who read this debate will be reassured on that point.

It is interesting to note that the aims of the cadet organisations are similar to those of Skill Force. The stated aims of the cadet organisations, although there are slight differences as between the Sea Cadet Corps, the Army Cadet Force, the Air Training Corps and the Combined Cadet Force, are to help young people towards responsible adulthood, to encourage valuable personal attributes and to foster confidence, self-reliance, initiative, loyalty and a sense of service to others. If that does not encapsulate what we hope for from Skill Force, I am not sure what else we could ask. Its difference from the cadet organisations is that they use military themes, based upon the culture and ethos of the single services.

But the main aims are similar. It is interesting to note that about one-third of youngsters on Skill Force projects either have been or are in the cadets. So there is an overlap, which is significant.

On behalf of some of my colleagues who work in and support the reserve forces and cadets organisations, I hope that we shall be able to provide administrative backbone support for that initiative—perhaps by providing some of the administrative arrangements, housekeeping and financial book-keeping.

I pay tribute to the team at the Ministry of Defence associated with the initiative. In particular, Dr Moonie MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, has given it tremendous support. Colonel Cross and Mr Gary Lewitt, of the Ministry of Defence, have been extremely supportive and have pioneered much of the work.

We should congratulate the Government on the extent to which they have achieved joined-up government here. The Department for Education and Skills and the Treasury seem to be playing a full role. Indeed, the Treasury is substantially funding the scheme; the money is not coming from the Ministry of Defence budget to any significant extent. We should congratulate the former warrant officers and officers involved. They provide an excellent example to the youngsters and receive a good employment. When my noble friend Lord Cranborne was a Minister, he introduced an initiative similar to this. It did not get off the ground. I tried unsuccessfully to do so myself, 15 years ago, when holding a similar position to my noble friend.

I hope that noble Lords visit the pilots. I visited the pilot in Islington. I was extremely impressed by the youngsters; they were intelligent and interested. I hope to welcome them to the Houses of Parliament to give them a tour. I am sure that it is an entirely different world from the one to which they are accustomed. The scheme deserves support and continuation.

This may be a small financial step for the Ministry of Defence, but it is a giant step for joined-up government.

6.12 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, both on the initiative that he has deployed to secure this debate and on the analysis that he presented to the House. The Skill Force proposal is one of considerable value. Although I shall suggest its widening, that does not mean that I support its replacement.

As I am extremely interested in the Air Training Corps, I was grateful for the noble Lord's explanation that there is no conflict between it and Skill Force. I certainly agree that I should not want the Ministry of Defence to deploy resources away from the cadet forces, because they probably provide the best recruits that the Armed Forces receive.

However, the principle could be applied in a way that would be rather more a service of prevention of disruptive behaviour and exclusion from school. I trust that the House will have some sympathy with the arguments that I shall deploy.

I was a schoolmaster a long time ago. As a young teacher, I realised—I realise even more as the years pass—how much I was helped by older colleagues with substantial experience in the Second World War. Because of that experience, they had a broader approach, were more mature and probably had a more marked sense of humour, which their experience had developed. They were very good at the job.

I accept that teachers' position today is rather different; it is a different society. There are more broken homes and there is more marital breakdown, greater criminality, the drugs problem, and so on. There is probably a higher proportion of irresponsible parents. That is why I can see an argument for the extension of the approach commended by the noble Lord.

I do not suggest that we can use the Armed Forces to replace teachers. A few months ago, I visited a primary school close to my home and went into five classrooms. There were five non-teaching assistants—good, local ladies. They were not teaching. They were tying shoelaces for the little ones; they were helping to issue equipment; they were listening to children read. They were, as it were, a cross between mothers and teachers. They are valuable in primary schools.

There may still be a place for such assistance for the younger age groups in secondary schools, but the most useful auxiliary assistance—especially for schools that are socially deprived or where the disruptive behaviour problem is especially marked—could be provided by ex-servicemen.

Many people will have seen the television programme, "Lad's Army", and think that that is what the services are like now. From my experience, it was rather accurate, but that was a long time ago. Today, we have professional rather than conscript forces. Servicemen in all three services are led rather than bullied. Those who have served, who have given their 20-odd years and are coming out with enormously valuable experience and a capacity of man-management that may be unequalled in other parts of our society, could make an extremely valuable contribution by assisting schools in their pastoral role.

Many teachers today may feel uneasy dealing with disruptive children. Many of them may not feel especially eager to encounter the more obnoxious parent. People with substantial military experience would not be quite so deterred. They would have a confidence and maturity to deal with the problem which may not be readily available in the school staff room. They could certainly deal with truancy.

We must accept that a substantial proportion of children playing truant from school are doing so with the full knowledge and approval of their parents. We must also accept that the irresponsible parent is unlikely to go to the parents' meeting or to co-operate with the school. A pastoral fulfilment of the skills of the senior non-commissioned officers of our Armed Forces could make an enormous difference.

Schools may be uneasy at first at the arrival of a sergeant major—especially where staff think that "Lad's Army" represents the service that we have today. But they would rapidly find that the children would be provided with a role model far better than others that may be held before them.

So I strongly welcome Skill Force. I trust that it will complement the cadet forces, which are most useful. But I also believe that we could extend the pilot scheme to ensure that there is involvement within the school to counter the disruptive tendency and to provide a means to prevent problems that will otherwise fuel criminality for a long time ahead.

6.18 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I first thank my noble friend Lord Freeman for introducing the debate and for his lucid explanation of how Skill Force works. It has my full and unequivocal support. I also declare an interest. My daughter and son-in-law are both serving officers in the Royal Air Force. I was myself a fairly lowly member of the Royal Air Force more years ago than I care to mention. My husband served in the Royal Air Force as a test pilot. I serve at present in the Air League Council and am an Air League Council member on the National Air Cadet Council, which is a body sponsored by the Ministry of Defence.

I know that my noble friend's description highlighting the important role of cadets is supported by the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, who has a long-standing interest in cadets and an active interest in the work of the Air Cadets, as I do myself. We need no persuading of the contribution that they can make. I lose no opportunity—and the noble Lord has taken this opportunity—to say how much the work of all cadet forces has contributed to turning around the lives of young people. Many young people who are not secure at home and do not have the support of a loving and nurturing family have, by one means or another, found their way into cadet forces. Their life has been turned around, and they have made positive contributions to their community from then on. They have also become more fulfilled themselves and have acquired skills that set them up for life.

For a long time, education has been an interest of mine. The noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, made a point about early intervention and the contribution that could be made by former members of the Armed Forces and members of the cadet forces in our schools. When the noble Lord spoke, I was reminded of a neighbour of ours from the time when our children were very small. We were talking about the unexpended energy of young people, of which there is a great deal. It is a problem. Often, if children expend their energy at all out of school, they do so in the wrong way. I remember my neighbour saying that it would be a good idea if ex-members of the Armed Forces, particularly physical training instructors, could be used when there were early signs of disruptive behaviour in the classroom. They could work with disruptive children out of the classroom, so that they could go back into the classroom. There was a deep intake of breath from those who heard her say that, but here we are, so many years later, making the same comments. My noble friend Lord Freeman talked about something much more sophisticated, which would use the talents and expertise of the Armed Forces and the cadet forces and the disciplined, structured way in which they operate to benefit other young people.

My noble friend referred to another of my noble friends, Viscount Cranbourne, and to a similar MoD scheme that did not get off the ground. In fact, it did get off the ground. At the time, I was a Home Office Minister and my noble friend Lord Cranbourne was a Minister at the Ministry of Defence. We had some difficulty in convincing the Department for Education that it was a good scheme, but we were undaunted, and our two departments jointly funded a scheme at Applecross on the Wills estate on the west coast of Scotland. The idea was to bring together for three, four or five weeks a group of vulnerable young people who were, perhaps, living slightly on the edge and getting involved in petty crime, and a group of young leaders, including young civil servants, people from the Probation Service and—the Ministry of Defence's contribution—cadets. Those people were put together there for a month and given activities.

The weakness of such schemes is often exposed when the young people are sent back to their communities. That is when all the good work that has been done with them out of that environment is undone. However, there was a wonderful voluntary organisation called Fairbridge that supported the young people as they moved back into their community and built on the work that had been done in Applecross. The rug has been pulled out from under that project. That is the only note of dissension that I shall introduce to our debate.

The scheme is now living rather hand to mouth, looking around for ways of sustaining itself. I am pleased to say that the cadet movement found the scheme very valuable. Not only were vulnerable young people benefiting, but the young potential leaders were benefiting too. They were improving their leadership and management skills. When the young people were together, the vulnerable young people found that there were things that they could do better than the so-called leader and management group. That was a wonderful aspect of the scheme, and there were benefits all round. The scheme, which took place in a beautiful part of the country and was supported by the most amazing voluntary effort by the cadet forces, the MoD and the Home Office, had a great impact on the lives of the young people.

It is important to try to keep such schemes going. There is a tendency in government, when something is well established and working, for civil servants to look around for something more novel and leave other schemes to fend for themselves. I must plead guilty to having done that in my time in government. Some schemes provide disproportionate benefit to the community, and I would like to think that they would continue.

I warmly thank my noble friend for giving us the opportunity to recognise the work of former members of the Armed Forces and of the cadet forces and to put in a plea for a little help from their friends. I know that the Minister is such a friend.

6.25 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, like every noble Lord who has spoken, I must declare some relevant interests. I served in the Ministry of Defence with my noble friend Lord Freeman. Subsequently, I became a vice-chairman of the Army Cadet Force, and I am now, along with my noble friend Lady Blatch, a member of the Air League Council. I have had a long interest in the cadet forces and am a warm supporter of the work of the ACF, the Air Training Corps and the Sea Cadets, although the Sea Cadets are more loosely connected with the Ministry of Defence than are the other cadet forces.

I agree strongly with the case put by my noble friend Lord Freeman for the initiative to which his Question refers. Retiring NCOs, in particular, are an enormously valuable resource, which we should employ to the national good. The expansion of the Army Cadet Force, for example, has often been constrained by the availability of adult instructors. It is always desirable that they should include considerable numbers of former Army NCOs. In past years, there have also been policemen. They were not necessarily retired policemen but may have had time available to bring their expertise and experience to bear on the instruction of young people. Several years ago, when I was concerned with such matters, we sought to expand the Army Cadet Force to include many more girls. Initially, that move was seriously constrained by the availability of female instructors, although, eventually, that problem was overcome.

We must make it clear that the cadet forces are not just recruiting agencies for the Armed Forces. They are much more than that. They are youth organisations that provide a focus and a range of activities for young people. Often membership of a cadet force does not lead to a career in the Armed Forces, nor is it intended to. The cadet forces are an enormously valuable resource for the purposes that my noble friend Lord Freeman described, ably supported by my noble friend Lady Blatch and the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath.

Nowadays, comparatively small numbers of cadets join the Armed Forces. Because the cadet forces are so active in urban areas, and in inner-city areas in particular, they play an enormously valuable role in the way that has been described. So, I support the Skill Force initiative. It is said that additional resources will be required if the initiative is to be expanded to the 100 or so units that are hoped for. I hope that the additional funds can be found, whether they come from the Ministry of Defence or anywhere else. It is a crucially important initiative for the young people of our country, and I support what my noble friend Lord Freeman and others said.

6.29 p.m.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, for initiating the debate. Unlike the other speakers, I had not heard of Skill Force before I saw it in future business. I found it difficult to work out what it was about, until I got some briefing. I am not a great expert, unlike previous speakers. My qualifications are slightly less lustrous than theirs. I served only as an officer in the TA—perhaps "served" is not the right word—having been dragooned into the CCF over 20 years ago.

The Skill Force scheme is outside the military-uniform environment. (My experience relates to the CCF. We wore shirts which seemed to be made of the coarsest fibres known to man.) That has to be a good thing. Skill Force is a progressive scheme. Its aim is to tackle one of the major problems facing the educational system today—exclusion. Exclusion is the nuclear option in the education system. For schools it is to a degree a mark of failure but it also demonstrates the limitations of the options available. It has detrimental effects on the pupils' future education and prospects.

Skill Force is not the only scheme which seeks to deal with the problem of exclusion. Young@now is an organisation which works with local pupil referral units. Its Jolt Programme supports disaffected young people by building on their latent skills and abilities outside conventional academic structures, helping to re-introduce them into mainstream education. It does excellent work.

Another organisation with which I am closely associated is in the North East. It is an art project called Kids Kabin and works with younger children. One of the problems is that exclusion often starts at an early stage. That body seeks to use art and free expression to give the children esteem.

From briefings and research I have undertaken, Skill Force seems an extremely progressive scheme. The brochure sets out optimistic, even aspirational, targets: 100 per cent to achieve the Duke of Edinburgh's award scheme; 100 per cent to achieve a Level One OCR Certificate in Preparation for Employment; and 100 per cent to achieve the St John's Ambulance 3 star Young Lifesavers Award. A hopeful target is a 50 per cent reduction in school exclusion. However, from the pilot project that figure seems not to be optimistic but achievable. That has to be related to the many years' experience of the instructors who go into schools. With schools being given outside resources, the teachers view the scheme as worth while. It is good that the scarce resources of the school are not used in that area.

I foresee one problem. Funding for the scheme seems to come from the Treasury. The Treasury is not known for its never-ending supply of largesse. Therefore, I have one question. Which department will be given the responsibility in the long term for this extremely successful scheme? Perhaps the MoD should take it up in the long term. Although the project is not seen as a vehicle for recruitment, it presents the Army in an extremely good light. Those excluded, and other school children, could become valuable members of the Armed Forces. Having worked on TA recruitment, I know that the Army is seen less and less as a favourable career path. The military are not seen as the natural career option for people at present.

Skill Force is an excellent scheme. Having worked with many children through some of the activities of Kids Kabin, I believe that its real success is demonstrated in an article written by the children. They said that they were going to school so that they would not be thrown off the Skill Force project which they enjoyed. That has to be seen as a mark of success.

6.36 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, as we seem to be in confessional mode, I can only declare that I was a Sea Ranger for a number of years and enjoyed that very much indeed. I am enormously proud of my elder son who this year completes 25 years in the TA.

I join other noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lord Freeman on highlighting the Skill Force initiative and bringing it to the attention of Members of your Lordships' House in such an explicit and interesting way. Like other noble Lords, I very much support measures that assist young people who are at risk of becoming disaffected with mainstream education. I am sure that we all agree that it is vital to re-engage with these young people so that they can reap the benefits from some type of formal education.

I understand that Skill Force is a scheme modelled on one that originated in the USA. Pilot schemes were launched in this country as the Armed Forces Youth Initiative in September 2000. It was then modified and expanded 12 months later to include 47 schools. In addition, it was renamed the Ministry of Defence Skill Force. Trained instructors who had served in the UK forces were initially allocated to the pilot schemes. I understand that the American scheme is a far more disciplined one and I presume that because of its success the Government adopted the initiative. However, I understand that today the only common factor of the two schemes that remains is that ex-servicemen are recruited to mentor in schools.

Truancy is the scourge of our age and made more disturbing by the fact that many parents do not appear to be taking a responsible approach to the widespread problem. Indeed, as my noble friend Lord Freeman outlined, truancy patrols working in May found that almost 12,500 children were absent from school. Around half of those stopped were with a parent. What chance do those children have if their parents take such a cavalier attitude?

Many of the candidates for this programme have a history of truancy. As a result, they are often way behind their peers, their level of achievement is low and their self-esteem is negligible. Government statistics reveal that truancy has increased by 11 per cent over the past five years. It is now a problem of major proportions.

I believe that many of these young people have not had the advantage of discipline in their lives at home and as a consequence find it hard to conform to the rules and regulations imposed on them during their school day. They appear to find it difficult to arrive on time, to learn basic skills or to be a part of everyday school life. More alarmingly, they can be a disruptive influence and cause the rest of the class to miss out. It is, therefore, in the interest of everyone that action is taken to try to get them interested in some form of learning.

The standard of discipline within our schools is worrying and I believe made worse by the Government's decision in 1998 to reduce exclusions of disruptive pupils regardless of the circumstances. This decision undermined the authority of heads and teachers and has led to more violence. I am delighted that the Government have now reversed this disastrous policy and I hope that heads and governors will now have real power to make decisions on exclusion based on individual circumstances.

Many of these disruptive pupils have probably lacked discipline all their lives. A lifestyle without boundaries known, accepted and understood can lead only to erratic behaviour where everyone suffers and the one who suffers the most is the young person out of control.

That brings me to my first question. Why was it decided to have a less structured form of the American programme if its success was based on a more formal approach?

At the same time as we are expressing our concern about one group of young people, we must not forget, as many noble Lords have confirmed, that another group has been mentioned: I refer, of course, to the cadets of all the services. As my noble friend Lord Freeman has said, 125,000 dedicated young people, week in and week out, are involved in training activities. As we have heard from noble Lords, they are decent young people who have their lives under control. They are role models for others and move on to become responsible citizens. The cadet forces have a close link to both the regular and the reserve forces and they provide a youth service much valued in the civil communities.

The Army Cadet Force is a valuable source of high calibre recruits to the regular forces and provides a military footprint within the country. It is significant to note that in the year 1999–2000, 20.2 per cent of young soldiers and apprentices to the regular Army came from the Army Cadet Force and nearly 19 per cent to the TA. It acts as a link between the Armed Forces and the civil community.

I believe that there is a case for expanding the cadets, which will have the benefit of involving young people in discipline and team work at an early age. That should develop their sense of responsibility, and reduce the rates of truancy, exclusion from school and street crime by young gangs. I believe that the Ministry of Defence should examine how the cadet forces can be enlarged and provide the appropriate resources, within its budget, to fund that valuable organisation. With other noble Lords, I applaud the achievements of those cadets.

It would be helpful if the Minister would publish, or deposit in the Library, the British Market Research Bureau's report on the results of the Skill Force pilot scheme in Norfolk and Newcastle. Funding for the Skill Force scheme is from the "Invest to Save Budget". As we have heard, it is backed by three different ministries: the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office and the DfES. That funding is for a set period. My second question is similar to that asked by other noble Lords: what will happen when that funding ceases? Another question that I must ask relates to the DfES guidance for those working with children. Have the instructors undergone local authority checks as to their suitability to work with children?

The debate has been interesting and informative and we have heard very positive points on the success of the scheme. Working with these young people must be demanding and exhausting and I should like to pay tribute to those instructors and their assistants who have brought a new vision to these pupils. Skill Force is giving young people the chance of a new start and it is an exciting initiative. We hope that those young lives will be transformed and, having attained positive results, that they will develop into useful and contented adult citizens. I wish the Minister well with this important work.

6.43 p.m.

Lord Bach

My Lords, we owe deep thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, for enabling the House to discuss the Skill Force initiative. I found his speech generous and positive in its approach. It was an outstanding opening to this short debate. I also thank all other noble Lords who have spoken on this important subject. I have a request to make of the noble Lord. When he brings some of the children who have benefited from this scheme to the House I ask that I can be privileged enough to meet them because it would be a joy to do so.

I want to consider briefly the range of contacts that the MoD has with young people. So wide are those contacts that the Ministry of Defence has signed up to implementing the core principles of "Learning to Listen", which enable the views of young people to be heard and acted upon. Each year, 200,000 to 300,000 young people have direct contact with the Armed Forces through their recruitment efforts. The activities range from climbing walls with the Royal Marines to solving problems in teams with REME. There are also opportunities for longer attachments aimed at enhancing self-esteem and confidence.

Secondly, as has been mentioned, there is the cadet movement, in which some 127,000 young people voluntarily engage in extra-curricular activities designed to promote qualities of responsibility, self-reliance, personal endurance, perseverance, self-confidence and discipline. And I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the 23,000 or so adult volunteers involved in the cadet movement who make it such a success.

Nor should we forget that the MoD is responsible for providing educational facilities to the children of service families serving abroad. That is done through an agency of the department, Service Children's Education, which looks after the needs of 15,000 young people from nursery schools to sixth forms.

Turning now to the Skill Force itself, I shall say something about its origins. As may be well known by some noble Lords, Skill Force was created by members of a local regiment in Newcastle to offer local schools access to the skills and expertise that the Army has to offer. They were concerned that many children whom they knew were becoming disaffected with school. The Army, the Newcastle education business partnership and local teachers designed the scheme for and in Newcastle, and at that time it was called "Relaunch".

The aim then was to offer a different approach from school that would re-motivate the pupils and reengage them with school. The course gave pupils the chance to drop two GCSE subjects which they were unlikely to pass, and in their place to study a range of achievable awards and qualifications. The pupils selected for Skill Force came for a variety of reasons; many due to disaffection and some because of low self-esteem. The one constant feature was that they needed something outside the national curriculum. The scheme was a resounding success locally and received much support from schools, parents and the local community.

That is how the scheme came into being. In answer to the first question put to me by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, the scheme, as it has developed, was based on those early days. It was not based on the United States' scheme. It is a British product.

In 1999, the scheme in Newcastle was selected by the Ministry of Defence as one of its contributions towards the Government-wide commitment to youth inclusion. Skill Force, as it became known, was launched as a pilot in Newcastle and in Norfolk in September 2000 with three schools in each area, involving 150 pupils. That cohort of pupils is now leaving school with many having successfully completed all of the Skill Force challenges.

The selection of rural Norfolk for the second project was a deliberate attempt to establish whether or not Skill Force could flourish beyond the urban setting. The essential features of the scheme remained the same, but what is important is that each area retained a large degree of flexibility. That ability to adapt to suit local circumstances has been a key factor in making Skill Force such a success.

As I said, participants drop two GCSEs in order to take part in Skill Force, which offers a variety of awards and qualifications. The course has at its core the Award Scheme Accreditation and Development Network, bronze/silver, normally called the ASDAN award. That is a modular, vocational award teaching the practical skills needed for later life. An example would be pupils having to work out the various costs of purchasing a bicycle on a credit card, with a bank loan or on a credit agreement. That type of activity not only develops number handling skills, but also demonstrates the real life cost of credit.

The first award that most students achieve on Skill Force is the St. John's Ambulance young life-saver award. That is normally completed by Christmas of year 10 and enables pupils who have had little success in academic school life to achieve a widely recognised and respected award. The certificates are then presented in front of the whole school, boosting immeasurably the recipients' pride and confidence.

Pupils also take part in the Duke of Edinburgh's award at bronze level. This experience has also been extremely positive. The pupils often show reticence at the start about some activities, such as community service—which is hardly surprising, as they are unlikely to have taken part in anything like that before— but they quickly develop a sense of pride and ownership in the community projects. A striking example of this is in North Lanarkshire, where pupils have built bridges in local authority country parks. For many it is the first time they have had the opportunity to show the results of their work to a wider audience. And the one-week expedition, which forms part of the Duke of Edinburgh's award scheme, has been very popular, giving a real sense of achievement.

As the project has developed, the curriculum has improved and grown. At present, several teams are piloting additional qualifications. Those range from the junior sports leader to the Oxford Cambridge and RSA first certificate in preparation for employment. Skill Force will always have local variations in the curriculum not only because of local circumstances but also to bring in new ideas. The ability to adapt to suit circumstances, local requirements and pupils' needs and to carry out practical and relevant work is one of the underpinning principles of the project.

The other major characteristic is that recently retired service personnel undertake the project and use their instructor skills to deliver the courses. There are many advantages, not least the respect pupils have for service personnel. After all, not many pupils would consider stepping out of line when the instructor is an ex-Royal Marine.

I should point out to the House that Skill Force personnel are not teachers, although some may use the experience to decide if they want to take up the profession, which is also important. They are selected by the LEA and are accountable to the head teachers of the schools in which they work. Their standards are extremely high: Ofsted inspectors grade them as either very good or excellent. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, checks are rightly made.

From a single project in Newcastle in 1999, Skill Force now teaches 1,200 pupils in 47 schools. The selection of areas for the new scheme is based on economic deprivation indicators and educational attainment figures. Local partners, in most cases the LEA or education business partnership, manage the new schemes. They also contribute towards the costs: partnership funding is a core principle of Skill Force. Central government funding comes from the MoD and the Treasury's Invest to Save budget after a joint bid by the MoD, Department for Education and Skills and the Home Office. Due to the popularity of the scheme, 45 out of the 47 schools have asked Skill Force to take on an additional year group of pupils next September and I am pleased to tell the House that funding has been secured.

The debate's title is about evaluation of the scheme's success. We have ensured that the project has been regularly evaluated from the outset. A rigorous, full and independent evaluation of Skill Force was carried out by the British Market. Research Bureau against its aims of reducing truancy, lowering exclusions from and improving attitudes to school, and preventing pupils leaving schools at 16 and not entering further education, employment or training. I will do my best to ensure that the evaluation is published, although I cannot give a firm guarantee.

The latest evaluation concentrating on the original Newcastle and Norfolk schools has shown good news. Reducing truancy levels is a key element in the strategy to reduce youth and street crime. Skill Force has helped to maintain attendance rates of over 90 per cent in children otherwise expected to display sharply declining attendance. Exclusion levels have also reduced dramatically. One Norfolk head teacher said, There are youngsters that would have been excluded by now from school if it hadn't been for Skill Force. Some of them have got very challenging behaviours but there has been a noticeable improvement, there's also been a noticeable improvement in their attendance". The continued engagement of those young people must also have the effect of reducing juvenile crime.

The scheme has also had a positive impact on the emotional and mental health and well-being of participants. Another head teacher said, Some have blossomed quite positively during the course and have become much more confident, much more able, much more articulate and much more able to cope with things". The evaluation process also seeks the views of the children, who state that they are now much better team-workers and have a greater respect for others. Ninety-seven per cent of children enjoyed Skill Force. These are pupils who on the whole have not had a positive experience of education.

One pupil stated, Skill Force is the main reason I get up on a Monday morning". Nearly six out of every 10 participants felt that their grades had improved since starting Skill Force, and just under half considered that they received fewer detentions. In the evaluation study, 20 per cent of Skill Force participants claimed to take part in voluntary activities outside school, compared to only 7 per cent of non-participants. Skill Force participants also showed increased involvement in out-of-school sports and youth clubs.

The scheme has been extremely well received by teachers. All teachers interviewed were positive about the impact it had upon their pupils; including children in the school not on the scheme. Here is a stunning quote from a head teacher in Newcastle: I think schools should jump at it, they should take it, they should run with it, they should make input into it, they should press for its development throughout the country really, we really ought to be doing this in every town". Over half of parents have reported more positive behaviour and attitudes which they attribute directly to Skill Force. Ninety-seven per cent are pleased with the scheme, 33 per cent consider their children more mature, 14 per cent consider them more confident and 12 per cent consider them more positive. The effects of Skill Force on the participants are obviously highly beneficial but others gain as well. The constructive removal of disruptive pupils from classes means that the remaining pupils can make faster progress. The rapid changes in personality that the Skill Force young people undergo result in a reduction in disruption in those classes which they continue to attend.

As one boy remarked, being disruptive in Skill Force was not particularly sensible, so being disruptive in class was a bit silly too. A headmistress said that last September was the quietest start to a school year she could remember. These results are exemplary and the Skill Force personnel, both on the ground and in the Ministry of Defence, are to be congratulated, as are the children themselves, on having taken part in what is always a deliberately challenging series of courses and studies.

The outcome of the evaluation of the Newcastle and Norfolk pilots was presented to interested parties in April this year. Among those present were officials from the Department for Education and Skills. I am delighted to announce in Parliament tonight that new Skill Force projects are to be set in 11 further areas; an effective doubling of Skill Force. I am sure that that announcement will be well received. The Department for Education and Skills has offered to fund the new projects. Funding will come from the behaviour improvement programme as part of the government-wide street crime initiative.

Skill Force started as a way by which army personnel set out to help disaffected youths in Newcastle. It is now delivering results in schools across England and Scotland and has earned the unanimous praise of this House. It is truly a bottom-up success story that has changed lives for the better. We all hope that it will continue to do so. Again I thank the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, for bringing this important scheme to our attention this evening.