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Education books

Once, there was what teachers used to call the "Okay, kids!"

approach to dealing with difficult adolescents. For a moment, when I saw the cover of Making a Difference compiled by Alan Dearling and Alison Skinner (Russell House pound;14.95) I thought I had stumbled upon it all over again. For looking out was a group of obviously lively lads surrounding a genial-looking guy with a beard and a cigarette. "Okay, kids! Stop messing and look at the camera."

That's a shame, because the cover does a minor disservice to what is a well-researched and highly practical set of guidelines for working with young people in trouble or at risk.

In a chapter by Alan Dearling called "Befriending", we learn about a well-developed scheme involving volunteers who give up time to provide encouragement and self-respect to individual youngsters or groups. The book describes it as "a complementary means of providing additional resources and support for young people, using adult members of the community in a non-stigmatising role." (When you read it, you wish that more adults would do this instead of writing to local papers about teenage behaviour.) Another chapter, "The School, Youth Crime and Violent Victimisation" by John Pitts, reports on anti-bullying work in schools in London and Merseyside. The author offers hope that deep-seated problems can show improvement - but warns that it can take a long time. One project was into its second year before the number of violent incidents fell.

While there's no quick fix here, there are some sound and hopeful strategies, put together by people who've been in the thick of it all. Dearling, for example, has worked for 30 years on the streets and in projects of various kinds with the type of young people the rest of us hurry past.

Another cover photograph that gives a frisson of a different kind is of two fed-up looking young men with short hair on the front of Locked in Locked Out by Angela Neustatter, subtitled "the experience of young offenders out of society and in prison" (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation pound;8.95).

Neustatter is a powerful writer, and this is a bleak subject. Right at the start she introduces us to Liam - a bright young man of 20 who's been in prison seven times since he was 15. "Liam is a repeat offender and with each prison sentence the likelihood of his being able to stop reoffending gets less."

We're all caught up in this cycle - when we call for young people to be locked up, and deride community service as "letting them off", we add to the populist pressure that's surely responsible for the UK having a greater proportion of its young people in prison than any other country in Europe.

Neustatter looks at the entire prison process - what happens at the start of the sentence, what goes on in the institutions, the attempts by brave and compassionate prison staff to make things better. Being written by a journalist who knows social issues, rather than by a social scientist reporting a research project means that her account is easy to read, yet at the same time discomforting.

Somehow it seems appropriate that after the images of troubled youngsters, we should be shown the calm face of a nun - nuns were looking after difficult kids long before social workers were invented. In Sister Genevieve (TimeWarner paperbacks pound;6.99) John Rae tells us the story of the woman who for 25 years was head of St Louise's girls' secondary school in deeply underprivileged west Belfast.

To be running a Catholic school as a member of a Catholic order in Belfast through the Troubles of the Sixties and Seventies provided the sort of challenges that even the most pressured heads in other places could hardly imagine. All the way through, in the highest traditions of our profession, Sister Genevieve (who died in January) put her pupils first: ahead of politics, religion or sectarianism.

John Rae is the right person to tell this story, for he unravels the background intricacies of what was going on in Northern Ireland schools at that time with the sure touch of someone who knows how education systems work.

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