How we can turn the underclass around

The system for dealing with troubled children needs more freedom and
less regulation.
What hope? Ignoring the plight of troubled teenagers can store up
problems in the future – How we can turn the underclass around

By Charlie Taylor Daily Telegraph

We know them when we see them – hoods up, trousers halfway down to
their knees, swaggering along the pavement in small groups, playing
loud music on their phones, swearing, spitting. These are the children
Michael Gove described in September as the “educational underclass”.

Most of the teenagers arrested in last summer’s riots were in this
group. There were a few exceptions, where a young adult was pulled
into crime by a temporary shifting of the moral compass, a moment of
madness. But the rest were the usual suspects. Most had no
qualifications. Many had been expelled from school or were serial
truants. They were attached to gangs and living a life of crime,
drugs, computer games and fast food. Look at the shops they raided and
you see what their values seem to be: trainers and mobile phones.

The state came down hard on them, and rightly so. Although a short
custodial sentence is unlikely to do these youngsters much good, the
courts needed to send a message that the public should not be
intimidated. If you see these children on their own, there’s often
much less of a swagger. Look into their tired eyes, and you will see
mistrust, fear and anger. Whether we feel pity for the awful lives
many of them have led, or rage because of the fear they cause, we
cannot afford to ignore them. If we are to protect ourselves, we must
do more to change their behaviour.

Many of them have been thrown out of school and have ended up in Pupil
Referral Units (PRUs) or other alternative provision. Their future is
then not good: barely one and a half per cent of pupils in PRUs get
five good GCSEs with English and maths. Many of these institutions are
simply holding pens. They may keep the children off the street for a
few hours a day, but when they leave at 16 they have no meaningful
qualifications or skills. One brilliant head I visited described her
PRU when she took it over: “It was run like a holiday camp, the
children never did any work and they spent their time out on trips,
playing pool or on Facebook. I think the staff were frightened of the
pupils and they were never challenged either about their behaviour or
with any academic work.”

As part of my role advising the Government on pupils’ behaviour, I
have been reviewing the provision of education for children who have
been excluded from mainstream schools. In writing my review, I have
been able to see some fine schools, with inspiring head teachers and
staff. The best of these PRUs transform the lives of pupils: the
children are helped to manage their anger, deal with their feelings
and change their behaviour. At the same time, these units provide
teaching that is as good as any in the country. They also work closely
with local schools so they can intervene early, before things get so
bad that the child is expelled.

If we want to improve all our PRUs then the best of them must be given
greater freedom to do their job. They should be permitted to convert
to become academies and allowed to innovate and develop. They should
be able to take over failing PRUs, and set up new provision in other
areas. Then they will come up with ideas that no one in government or
local authorities has thought of – because these are some of the elite
school leaders in the country. PRUs should be able to train their own
teachers, so we can develop a workforce of experts in behaviour, who
have the understanding to teach the most difficult children.

Mainstream schools should have more choice about where they send their
most troubled pupils. At the moment their budget is cut to pay for the
local authority PRU. Schools have to pay even if the PRU isn’t any
good. That’s wrong. Schools should be allowed to use any good
independent provider, whether it is a small independent school or a
charity. The monopoly of the local authority’s default PRUs should be
ended.

With this freedom for schools comes more accountability. At the moment
they often send some of their children with behaviour problems out of
school to receive support, but some of the providers are as bad as the
worst PRUs. I have recommended that the Department for Education and
Ofsted set up extra inspections of schools, to ensure they are not
sending their most vulnerable children to this sort of low-quality,
out-of-sight, out-of-mind provision.

My recommendations are challenging, but necessary. The behaviour and
attitude of some of these youngsters can be appalling. There’s a
temptation to push them into the background and hope they will go
away. But they won’t. If we don’t give them what they need to get
their lives on track, we will all pay, via the cost of prisons, mental
health services, crime and welfare benefits. If we don’t begin to
solve this problem, we will continue to pass it on through the
generations.

Charlie Taylor is Expert Adviser on Behaviour to the Department for Education