A GROUND-BREAKING scheme to bring young members of city gangs together across the territorial divides that lead them to fight vicious battles is to be rolled out across Glasgow's south side.

Police believe the Pathfinder project has demonstrated it can halve reoffending among teenage gang members involved in crimes ranging from antisocial behaviour and vandalism to house breaking and assault.

The scheme brings together sworn enemies from a number of the 100 or so rival gangs in Glasgow and takes them out of their comfort zones - their housing schemes - into the countryside, where they are made to see how futile fighting is and the negative impact it is having on their lives, their families and communities.

The scheme ran for the first time in September 2005, when it targeted 10 of the most out-of-control 13 to 16-year-olds in Castlemilk, Toryglen and Pollokshaws.

In the six months before it began, these boys had committed 60 offences between them. Six months following Pathfinder, their rate of offending fell by 47.5-per cent.

Recently, Pathfinder received the Chief Constable's Award for Policing Excellence and now the police are looking to expand it across the whole of the south side of the city.

Police at the community safety department at Cathcart sub-division developed the project to tackle what they say is one of the biggest problems in their area: gang-related youth crime and disorder.

The territorial youth gangs that afflict many parts of Glasgow are one of the city's largely unseen problems. Estimating there are 100 or so identifiable groups, police believe they have a total of around 2000 members.

Most fight every Friday and Saturday night. Battles are arranged by mobile phone - texts or calls - or by one gang straying into rivals' territory and waiting for word to get out.

Often there will be around 30 people on each side, armed with weapons such as knives, meat cleavers, machetes, golf clubs, sticks and bricks. The gangs fight until they get chased by the police.

Sergeant Paul Robertson, one of the officers behind the scheme, hopes Pathfinder can help drive down knife crime. Last month Justice Minister Cathy Jamieson acknowledged that it will take more than enforcement to cut Scotland's knife culture when she launched a GBP580,000 campaign to try and change attitudes towards knives, backed by Detective Chief Superintendent John Carnochan, head of the Violence Reduction Unit. Jamieson described those carrying knives as "sleep walking into danger" and spoke of the need to "challenge the idea that knife crime is acceptable or normal".

The way Robertson sees it, the teenagers who go on Pathfinder are the murderers of the future and this is their last chance to stop and think before they land that fatal blow. "Pathfinder is about saving lives, " he says.

Youngsters are put forward for the scheme by social workers, schools and local councillors, but mainly community police officers.

The programme begins with three development sessions which provide the youngsters - some of whom have fought each other in the past - with an introduction to each other and the police officers involved in the scheme. But the focus of Pathfinder is a weekend away in the countryside where classroom work is mixed with team-building exercises such as rock climbing, abseiling and raft building.

Only two or three of the boys in every cohort will make a permanent change. If that figure were higher, oddly, the police think they would be failing: "Our aim will always be to change all of their behaviour but, to be honest, if we managed that, we'd know that we were targeting the wrong boys, " says Robertson.

For the time being, Pathfinder does not take on girls - they are not the persistent offenders and don't tend to be involved in the thick of gang violence. But, in the future, a separate programme could be established, says Robertson.

"There is no doubt girls play a big part in gang culture, " he says. "Girls think these guys are sexy so they get drawn in and are attracted to the gangs. The majority are not involved in the violence but they are there and putting themselves in danger, so a Pathfinder for girls would be relevant. But the issues are different, so it would have to be a modified version."

Police admit the change in behaviour Pathfinder brings doesn't last forever. That's why Robertson wants to create Pathfinder Plus. This will build on the lessons learnt by the youngsters during Pathfinder by getting them into training courses, work experience and employment when they return home - providing, of course, that they keep out of trouble.

"Initially, offending rates will stay low, but if through time they have nothing else to do to sustain their motivation, most of them will continue offending, " says Robertson. Who is going to run this second phase? The details are yet to be finalised but it's vital someone does, says Robertson.

SCOTT Fullerton, 17, and John Robertson, 16, are Pathfinder graduates and reformed gang members. Outside the safety of the car, Scott seems nervous. We've come to Castlemilk to take pictures. With his red Lacoste shellsuit and trainers on I'd say he blends right in, but Scott used to run with The Toi - a gang in Glasgow's Toryglen housing scheme - making Castlemilk virtually a no-go area for him.

John, 16, used to have the opposite problem. He was in The Valley, a gang based inCastlemilk and, until recently, he wouldn't have made it across Toryglen in one piece. "I'd have got battered, " he tells me simply.

Both teenagers used to fight - or "go for a box", as John puts it - every weekend. John's weapon of choice was heavy chains and Scott has been charged for carrying a knife.

But that was before Robertson and his team got to them. "We make them see the futility of fighting with somebody just because they come from a different housing scheme, " explains Robertson.

John confirms this. When he went on the second Pathfinder project, which ran in May, he was surprised to find that the boys in rival gangs were "brand new". Speaking of Pathfinder, he says: "It just showed I could be pals with other boys in different areas." Now John is aiming to enter a trade. He says: "'Cause I'm 16 I can't afford to get in trouble with the police."

Meanwhile, Scott started a college course in the summer in external rendering and hopes when the course finishes in February it will lead to employment. Scott says: "I'm just going to stick my head down and get on with life instead of hanging about like a stupid, wee fool."

The police involved in Pathfinder have also learned lessons. Robertson says: "One of the things that surprised me: you take them away and they actually laugh and have fun. That's not something you see a lot of these guys doing.

"You're reminded they're still children - albeit children who have committed some fairly serious crimes. Some have not had the chance to enjoy a childhood because they've been too busy living up to some macho image."

Once a boy on the residential weekend became homesick. Not for his house per se - he was used to not going home at night - but for his housing scheme. "He's just never been out of that environment, " says Robertson. Others have never had a chance, Robertson feels, with parents who are drug users or caught up in crime themselves.

Robertson acknowledges some people won't like the idea of good things happening to bad boys at the expense of the tax payer - each Pathfinder course costs GBP1500. But it's not all about learning how to rock climb.

"Over the weekend there is lots of classroom work as well, " Robertson says. "They share their experiences, talk about themselves, give examples of the things they have done, examine how they ended up behaving that way and think about the impact their behaviour has had on them, their families and their communities."

Besides, the cost of the programme is a bargain if you look at how much it takes to deal with their crimes.

"A breach of the peace alone costs around GBP3000 for the police investigation and court proceedings. The average cost of a serious assault is GBP23,000, " says Robertson.

Some of the names in this article have been changed.