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Bradley George, a skinny boy in a rabbit–fur hat, is hiking by my side. He is sure–footed, fit and astute. He tells me he wanted to go back home after the first three days but was persuaded to stay on. 'I'm glad,' he says. 'I've decided to join the Army or perhaps go to America.' At 17 George is the youngest on the trip and barely says a word for the first few days. Back in Tilbury, in Essex, out of education, he tends to smoke weed and get bored but his key worker persuaded him to apply. He emerges as a natural leader on this trip and enrols on a training course that will see him return as a senior adventurer.

The BES (formally the British Schools Exploring Society) has run expeditions since 1932, when it was founded by George Murray Levick, a surgeon commander in the Royal Navy. A member of the northern party of Captain Scott's last expedition, he spent the 1911–12 Antarctic winter in a snow hole in darkness, where he dreamt up an educational body for young explorers. As he said, 'Unless we foster the spirit of adventure… we stand a good chance of losing it.'

Base Camp in the vast open landscape of north-west Iceland. PHOTO: Giulio di Sturco

Today the range of expeditions includes biodiversity research in the Peruvian Amazon, studying polar climate change in the Arctic, and adventures in the Indian Himalayas, Oman, Namibia and Iceland. Traditionally, the young explorers, or YEs, as they are known, have either raised funds themselves or parents have contributed. But the present BES chairman, Teddy Watson, wanted to expand, and implemented the outreach programme in 2006 after he had seen the transformation that expeditions made to borstal boys first hand when he was an outdoor instructor in the Lake District. Now he believes it is the core of BES. 'We are a society open to everybody, regardless of means, but the Next Generation programme is critical to what we do. The BES is about unlocking the potential of the young and it's just as much about the disaffected bloke in and out of jail on drugs as it is the guy born with a silver spoon in his mouth.'

To be eligible for DNG candidates must be aged between 16 and 21 and part of a Catch 22 programme. 'The most common referrals are from people leaving care,' Hodges says. 'Young people who grew up in the care system may have found themselves in foster placements or in residential care, and are now in a position to make the transition into adulthood, and living independently.' Inevitably it is oversubscribed. Key workers fill in referral forms for the candidates (detailing their problems, which might include substance misuse, aggression, eating disorders, self–harm or low self esteem) and each applicant has to complete a short statement about why they want to take part. A shortlist is drawn up. 'We aim to offer places to those young people who have the most to gain from the experience,' Hodges says. 'We don't have the resources to support those with really severe behaviour issues, but we push it as far as we can to offer opportunities to those who have the most to gain.' The programme is funded by private donations like the rest of the society – it receives no government or public money. The BES and Catch 22 teams work together to raise funds from charitable trusts and, on occasion, private sponsors (outdoor clothing for the DNG scheme was sponsored by Mountain Warehouse).

Members of the Dangoor Next Generation team in Iceland. PHOTO: Giulio di Sturco

We are into week two, the third day of the mountain section. After climbing Mt Sellandafjall the nine adventurers in Team Bull are still going strong when I drop behind to speak to Neil Laughton, the inspirational chief leader. He is hiking with Adrian Taylor, the national project manager with Catch 22 and a social leader on the trip. 'Dependence to independence,' summarises Laughton, who also gives up his time to oversee the programme on training weekends in the South Downs and the Scottish Highlands.

'Young people from difcult backgrounds often lack confidence, positive role models and the discipline to escape a downward spiral in society,' he says. Some have behavioural problems, autism or epilepsy. As Taylor says, 'Many live in small world syndrome.' They find out for the first time about the world beyond, what it takes to survive in the wilderness. A few drop out in the early stages (though fewer each year). Laughton remembers being on the way to the South Downs when one boy looked out of the coach window and asked, 'What's that?' Laughton replied, 'It's a cow.'

'All the research suggests that the time between adolescence and adulthood is crucial,' Taylor says.

Another unifying factor seems to be struggle. 'The Neets have to do something very challenging outside their comfort zone, which has a tremendous effect on self–confidence and self–esteem,' he says.

In some cases, the main problem the Neets have to contend with is boredom; at home they often have nothing to concern themselves with except local status. This is what the Chief Scout and BES patron Bear Grylls calls the comfort pit. 'Kids don't lack ambition – they lack opportunities,' he says. 'You should get out of the comfort pit as soon as possible. Take kids on an adventure outdoors and you can see their pride and confidence grow.'

The results speak for themselves. One young man I meet, Jon Thompson, 19, suffers from Asperger's and was referred through Kent Learning and Employability Service. He tells me, during our precarious descent of Sellandafjall, that he has trouble with literacy, education and forming relationships with his peers, but for the first time on the expedition he has been able to build adult friendships.

Matthew Dyke, Hayden Johnson and team leader Claire Press discuss their route for the day. PHOTO: Giulio di Sturco

After the trip, Hodges tells me, 'For a young man who needed routine and structure, he was forced to abandon everything familiar and embrace new things and people. Overcoming these challenges and making new friends has had a transformative effect on his self–esteem. On his return home he approached his key worker and asked him if he could go to college, which was a truly major turnaround.'

By June 2013 there were more than one million Neets between 16 and 24 in Britain. The cost to the government and the taxpayer is astronomical. Nick O'Donohoe, the CEO of Big Society Capital, the world's first social investment bank whose mission includes preventing young people becoming Neets, estimates that 'the maximum cost to the Department for Work and Pensions per person is £8,200 over five years, and the lifetime cost about £97,000 per person [about £45,000 in resource costs and £52,000 in public finance according to research by the Department for Education, in terms of taxpayer costs in benefits, care, prison and psychiatric costs].' The US government spent $428 million on an after–school programme in 2006, estimating that in the long run it would save $1.3 billion.

The BES cost of £5,400 to put someone through the three–month programme pales against these figures. BES and Catch 22 are presently seeking investment of £800,000 to run the Next Generation programme for three years and are pioneering another programme for 14–to 16–year–olds that aims to prevent them becoming Neets in the first place.

But right now the only concern is where to camp for the night in this freezing Icelandic summer. Soon tents are being pitched on a comfortable bed of soft sphagnum moss by the river, and everyone joins in with the usual hubbub of heating water on the stove, swapping meals (chicken tikka masala is the popular favourite) and tales of lavatorial misfortune. Emily Banks, 18, tells me she was in tears when she climbed a hill in the Highlands on the training expedition. She wanted to give up halfway up Sellandafjall, though she made it to the peak, but she is determined to climb Askja – the toughest mission, a fiveday hike up to 4,200ft, where they will face high winds and blinding sand. 'I will climb the volcano,' she says. 'Everyone supports their team–mates no matter what the situation,' she adds. 'I know I can rely on them if I need a hand.' (True to her word, Emily went on to complete the Askja expedition.)

Abbie Puttic, Sammie Wood-Johnson and Rachel Owusu-Dappah take a food break at Base Camp. PHOTO: Giulio di Sturca

'The moments that mean the most in terms of personal development,' Hodges says, 'are when a young person walks away from a confrontation when previously they might have risen to the bait; or when one of them gets out of bed without a 25–minute debate, or helps his group by making dinner for the first time after having selfishly let them do everything for weeks – these are the little moments of triumph that our staff work hard for.'

The scientific content is also high on all the expeditions, providing unforgettable adventure fieldwork. On expeditions to the Dhofar Cloud Forest in Oman the YEs set camera traps that recorded (against all expectations) the rare Arabian leopard, and conducted dragonfly and butterfly surveys. In Namibia they used 360–degree photography to document 4,000–year–old rock art as well as hiking to the Skeleton Coast. In the Peruvian Amazon they looked at tribe biodiversity and swam with pink dolphins, and in the Himalayas they studied the effects of altitude on adolescents.

'Students on British Exploring surveys have a history of systematic fieldwork of very high standards,' Nigel Winser, the executive vice–president of Earthwatch, an organisation that promotes conservation issues worldwide, says. 'Who would have thought those maps of glacier snouts made by simple "plane tabling" survey techniques over 50 years ago would provide such an invaluable record of ice on the planet?' The BES is now planning to make 80 years' worth of its archives, a rich source of data for scientific study, available on the internet.

Recently Alex Woodford, 22, a YE veteran from Leicestershire, won the inaugural Land Rover Next Generation Explorer challenge in a national competition. As another BES patron, the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes says, 'With all the constraints imposed on schools and clubs these days by health and safety, it is good to see British Exploring is still taking a large number of youngsters to remote parts of the world to help them in their development.' But though most BES expeditions thrive, there are always risks, and on the 2011 Svalbard trip to northern Norway there was a rare tragedy when the Eton schoolboy Horatio Chapple was killed by a polar bear. The Svalbard expedition has now been suspended indefinitely and an independent inquiry led by Sir David Steel, a retired High Court judge, was conducted into the incident. An ongoing strategic review of the structure of the BES has already taken on many of the inquiry's recommendations for the society's workings and expedition management.

Former YE Doug Oppenheim, now 37, was so inspired by his experience that 15 years later he became a trustee of the society. 'My expedition in Alaska when I was 18 was one of the most powerful experiences I've ever had,' he says. 'At the end of my time in the Alaskan mountains I felt I could do anything. That's a very common experience. As well as the adventure and the friends you make, there's the thrill you get surviving in the wilderness at the point at which you're halfway to adulthood. It's very empowering. Every year at our annual gathering there are always one or two members in their 60s or 70s who show up and tell the new YEs that, looking back, their expedition was one of the highlights of their lives. There's no other organisation like it in this country or anywhere else for that matter.'

More than 50 per cent of the places on the society's expeditions are now taken by state school pupils from around the country. As Lt Gen Peter Pearson, the executive director of the BES, says, 'Our policy is to widen the base from which our explorers come. We do this by fundraising to produce bursaries for those who find the fundraising more challenging.' 'It's quite eye–opening, meeting the young people after their expeditions,' David Dangoor, a businessman whose family sponsors the Next Generation programme, says. 'State–educated teenagers leave school believing they can do far less than they actually can, whereas privately educated teenagers graduate thinking they can do far more than they can.'

On Day 14, the Icelandic fresh waters are filled with trout but no one has managed to catch one. Early the next morning the group must cross the river to make their way to Base Camp. It is knee deep so they have to wade through the freezing water. Ebenezer Kadejoh, 21, from south London (who won a place via the Peckham youth service Kickstart) has returned for his second year on the programme as an assistant leader (he was previously a crew member on a tall ship in Project High Seas). 'Come on, Connor, this ain't a pool party,' he shouts – his natural slightly idiosyncratic authority helping to coordinate the crossing.

The return trip to Base Camp on Day 14 requires the team to wade across a trout-filled but freezing rive. PHOTO: Giulio di Sturco

Kadejoh is proof of the DNG programme's effectiveness. He is currently studying computer game design at London Metropolitan University and working part–time at Hamleys but plans to set up his own company once he has learnt more about business. 'BES shows people they can push themselves right outside the comfort zone,' he says. 'Before business or college you need self–discipline. These trips really help you not to fold in real life. I know my skills have improved at leading and motivating other people.'

Two weeks after each expedition, the BES runs a Focus for the Future day when the adventurers learn CV skills, hear a motivational talk and workshop, receive prizes and watch a film of their adventure. 'They simply love this,' Hodges says. Then Catch 22 takes over the practicalities of helping them to find employment and training, though many are proactive themselves.

Ben Dollar, 22, was referred to the programme through Catch 22 Sufolk's leaving–care team. He has a learning difficulty affecting his memory, which in turn affects his self–esteem. He had struggled to find work or direction, but the BES expedition was a catalyst for him. He says, 'I've learnt to be much more patient with people. At the beginning I really struggled with some members of my group but I realised I can cope with other people's behaviour without getting angry. I liked it because it was a challenge – it got me off the sofa and made me do something. If I hadn't gone I would have been doing nothing at home. Now I'm back, I've just been to a job interview – I would never have been able to do that before going to Iceland.' It was a turnaround forged on a remote volcanic isle.

He got the job.

The names of some of the adventurers have been changed. britishexploring.org

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