Focus on exclusion is critical

A new report throws the spotlight on the link between truancy and crime, says Richard Margrave.

Like it or not, teachers and schools are set to remain in the front line of the Government's crackdown on crime. Education is one of nine key areas identified by a top policy-making group as a factor in discouraging re-offending by ex-prisoners.

According to the Department for Education and Skills, a soon-to-be published report from the Social Exclusion Unit, now part of the deputy Prime Minister's new office, will offer "a comprehensive framework to bring together all the key strands - housing, drugs and health, employment and education and training - which contribute to helping prisoners resettle and find work".

One of the first reports from the unit led to the imposition of tough targets for truancy and exclusions on the former Department for Education and Employment by Downing Street, which reduced the number of exclusions but put intolerable pressure on schools battling against pupil indiscipline. Those targets have gone and there is already an 11 per cent rise in exclusions in England.

The current work of the unit is concentrated on ex-prisoners' alarming rates of re-offending and the underlying elements of social exclusion. Ironically, while many applauded the jail sentence of Patricia Amos, mother of the two daughters who played truant, findings show how poor a deterrent a jail sentence is for repeat offending.

The figures show that of prisoners released in England in 1997, more than half were convicted of a crime within two years and more than a third were back in prison. For male 18 to 20-year-olds during the same period, the re-conviction rate was 72 per cent, with almost half back in prison.

A background of social exclusion among prisoners is strikingly evident. In comparison with the general population, a prisoner is 13 times more likely to have been in care as a child; 14 times as likely to be unemployed; two-and-a-half times as likely to have had a family member convicted of a criminal offence; six times as likely to have been a young parent and 10 times as likely to have been a regular truant. Prisoners are also around five times more likely to have been excluded from school.

The improvement of education services in prisons and young offenders'

institutions is critical and the Government has allocated pound;20 million extra, to be spent over the next two years.

Announcing the spending, the then adult skills minister, John Healey, said:

"Many prisoners' school experiences have put them off learning - more than half will have been excluded from school at some point."

It is clear that the spotlight will stay on the compulsory school years, with widespread acceptance of the clear correlation between truancy and crime.

Some calculations suggest 50,000 pupils truant each day, with the parents of four out of five knowing they are missing school. Official figures show 40 per cent of street crime, 20 per cent of criminal damage, 25 per cent of burglaries and 30 per cent of car thefts are committed by under-16s playing truant.

The Prime Minister is committed to reducing street crime, and chairs regular meetings which home and social affairs ministers attend.

The impact on schools is already clear, with a recent re-allocation of pound;66m to tackle bad behaviour - through learning support units, electronic registration, truancy sweeps and full-time education for excluded pupils - and a new policy to station police in selected schools.

Leaks suggest the more controversial elements of the report will concentrate on extending housing benefit payments for prisoners, and it is likely that the 18 to 20 age group will be targeted.

Cross-agency action to help those already in prison is welcome, but the system needs to support schools with the staffing and training necessary to ensure that those who are excluded do continue to receive full-time education.

Dr Richard Margrave, a former adviser to Jack Straw MP and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, is a consultant to the Federation of Prisoners'

Families Support Groups

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