How far can you hold on to a pupil who is on the wrong path outside of school?
C was sentenced to Her Majesty’s Pleasure at a well-known young offender’s institute. When his mum telephoned me with the news, I felt a sudden panic for this lad. The school planned to keep him on roll which was great news but the Head of Year warned me not to get my hopes up as ‘generally these kids won’t make it to the end of Year 11’.
I carried on teaching my class, I dutifully sent C all his coursework which I had photocopied and marked. He was the best student in that class by a few academic miles and predicted a B. I sent a note containing some teacherly advice but also some genuine fondness. I didn’t expect a reply.
One morning, I found a small brown letter in my pigeonhole. My name was scrawled out in big adolescent letters. It had C’s name and prison number on the back. He had actually replied and it was a proud teaching moment. He told me all about his days and his new English teacher whom he put in brackets wasn’t as good as me and ‘don’t get jealous Miss’. It made me smile even though I knew that the promises C was making to me, to himself and his mum would be so hard to keep.
He did his three months and rejoined the class in Year 11 but he had changed. Physically and mentally. He was no longer the boy but a man. He found it hard to settle back into the childish confines of the classroom. He told me that some teachers had written him off, he felt disengaged like he had nothing in common with his friends. He had grown-up and they hadn’t. In his descriptive writing C wrote two telling pieces about loneliness and bullying and although he never said, he must of undergone harsh treatment at the hands of his fellow inmates.
So when the latest government initiative is to invest in a secure prison college or college prison then I truly hope that they can provide pupils like C the emotional support required to return to their old lives and move away from the temptations of their neighbourhood hangouts. Pupils like C come from backgrounds of drug and alcohol dependency, violence and abuse. C was following in familial footsteps.
A criminal record damages life chances further and even with qualifications, how likely are young people such as C to gain full time employment or fully integrate into law-abiding communities? His father was testament to that.
I agree that education is important and that no child should be left on ‘the scrapheap’ but I also don’t think we should be criminalising children. We should be supporting them in the ‘right environment’, creating a place where they can learn, develop and grow without being labelled a criminal.
According to Rob Flello, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent South and former shadow justice minister says ‘Surely it is safer and more humane to detain children in small, local units with a high staff ratio and where they can maintain links with their families, and children’s services. Such links can also lead to better planned resettlement, and therefore reduce the likelihood of reoffending.’
It makes sense when you consider the links between background and offending. Social workers and youth offending teams need to be more closely aligned in such cases. 47% of young offenders are underachievers at school and 39% have been subjected to a child protection plan, meaning they have ‘suffered significant harm’ in the form of neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse.
C completed courses in prison, gained numeracy and literacy, he even did a gym instructors course. He managed to complete his GCSES but one year later, I read he had been arrested and was out on bail.
A society that locks up its youth is effectively throwing away a child’s future.