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Friday, 24 May, 2002, 23:04 GMT 00:04 UK
The overlap between schools and crime
school playground
Most schools have been quietly getting on with things
mike baker

What a week for education!

It started with drugs in schools, moved on to truancy and the courts, and ended with a big rise in expulsions.

Does this mean England's schools are in crisis?

Well, yes and no. First, let's put things in perspective.


A head teacher e-mailed me to say parents at his school had certainly sat up and taken notice of the prison sentence

Some 7.5 million children turned up for school on time this week. Most studied hard or took exams.

A tiny minority played truant, used drugs or were excluded from school.

But, in this same week, ministers decided the battle against drugs in schools needed an injection of "shock tactics" and encouraged head teachers to take a "one strike and you're out" approach to pupils who deal drugs.

It's about crime

Also, in this same week, a court confirmed it was right to impose a prison sentence on a mother who had "simply not bothered" to send her children to school regularly.

And finally, in this same week, new figures showed a big rise in the numbers of pupils being permanently excluded for serious misbehaviour.

Most surprising was the 19% rise in exclusions from primary schools.

So what is going on? There is a one-word answer: crime. The public is concerned about it, the media is obsessed with it, and the government is now anxious about it.

Start here

What has this got to do with education?

It is simple. The government has promised to cut crime and youth crime is one of the fastest growing areas.


This is not the carefree 'bunking off' of Huckleberry Finn

There is a clear link between drug use, truancy and exclusion on the one hand and, on the other, crime statistics. So, to tackle crime, you must start with education.

A six-month study by the Metropolitan Police found that 5% of all offences were committed by children during school hours, and 40% of robberies and 20% of criminal damage were committed by 10 to 16 year olds.

According to the Audit Commission, nearly half of all school-age offenders have been excluded from schools and a quarter were persistent truants.

Home Office research suggests truants are three times more likely to commit an offence than those who attend school regularly.

Right priority

One could add to this some of the other costs: truants are more likely than other young people to become unemployed and homeless.


Drugs: why the sudden advocacy of 'shock tactics'? Is it a sign of desperation for quick results?

Although there is no statistical measure of unhappiness, I think it's fair to say that truants and excluded pupils have miserable lives. This is not the carefree "bunking off" of Huckleberry Finn.

So the government is right to make this a priority. But taking the right measures is much harder.

We have already seen some false starts.

Take drugs education: the government now wants schools to employ "shock tactics" such as showing the pictures of the death of young Rachel Whitear, a victim of drug abuse.

Message ignored

Yet, in 1988 a Department for Education booklet said the use of "shock tactics" was "rarely effective".


If the government wants to have a real impact on drugs education it would do well to ensure groups like this are better funded

It said research showed young people tended to assume that such messages were aimed at hardened drug addicts, not at them.

So they either disregarded the message or, in a few cases, they became intrigued and even exhilarated by what they were shown.

The advice seemed sensible in 1988. So why the sudden advocacy of "shock tactics"? Is it a sign of desperation for quick results?

This week I sat in on a drugs lesson at Burford Community School in Oxfordshire. It was delivered by a former drug user.

He wore baseball cap and trainers and had what I suppose is called "street credibility". He was brilliant.

Behaviour lesson

The youngsters, who almost certainly know as much about drugs as most teachers, listened to him with respect and interest.

He did not use shock tactics. He says they don't usually work.

Instead he gave unvarnished information and taught them something about human behaviour and weakness, such as the way we all like to follow the crowd.

His name is Paul McCabe and, now free of drugs, he runs a charity called Energy and Vision which takes its message into hundred of schools.

If the government wants to have a real impact on drugs education it would do well to ensure groups like this are better funded.

Back in court

The following day I was in court to hear the appeal by Patricia Amos against her 60-day prison sentence for her failing to send her teenage daughters to school.


Their father was an alcoholic who had left the family some years ago

Her sentence had been the first use of new powers brought in by the government to try to bring home to parents the importance of regular school attendance to their children's future.

Last week in this column I argued both sides of the case for imprisoning a mother in these circumstances.

I received a huge response from you. Most respondents were very firmly in one camp or the other.

What was notable about the case against Mrs Amos was the sheer volume of offers of help, support, and solicitation that she had received from the school authorities over a two-year period.

Problems

Huge efforts and costs had gone into trying to help her get her children to school. Yet she repeatedly failed to turn up for meetings with the professionals trying to do the best for her daughters.

It was also clear in court that Mrs Amos has serious personal and emotional problems.

She was not an uncaring mother. Yet, as the judge put it, she had failed in her responsibility for her daughters and they had "suffered" because they had "not had a proper education in years".

As an aside, I simply note that their father - who the court heard was an alcoholic who had left the family some years ago - was not subject to prosecution.

Patricia Amos may have had her sentence reduced but the judge upheld the principle of imprisonment and, afterwards, the local education authority which brought the original case said it was ready to do so again against other parents.

Encouraging the others

Other education authorities have apparently shown a close interest in taking similar action.

Last week a head teacher e-mailed me to say that parents at his school had certainly sat up and taken notice of the prison sentence.

So, perhaps this is a policy that will work and which has sent a warning to parents of the seriousness of allowing or condoning truancy.

Finally, this week's rise in exclusions does not mean children's behaviour has suddenly worsened.

Mistaken targets

It is simply confirmation of the government's earlier mistake in trying to set an artificial limit on the numbers being expelled. Now that limit has been lifted the number of expulsions is finding its natural level.

The government was wrong to impose a target but its aims were good: excluded children were being written off by the system with disastrous consequences for them and for society.

The government has now provided alternative provision in Pupil Referral Units so, instead of just an hour or two a week, they should all get a proper, more individually tailored, education.

Truancy, drugs and exclusions are all areas where it is right for central government to set a lead.

But it must also be prepared to adapt its policies on the advice of those at grass-roots level.


We welcome your comments at educationnews@bbc.co.uk although we cannot always answer individual e-mails.

See also:

23 May 02 | UK Education
23 May 02 | UK Education
23 May 02 | UK Education
21 May 02 | UK Education
Internet links:


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