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Investing in moths

Despite all reports to the contrary, delinquency is not a 20th-century phenomenon. If penny cans of spray paint had been available in Queen Victoria's day young ragamuffins might also have left their copperplate "tags" on horse-drawn omnibuses. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister's recent call for a national campaign against yob culture had some resonance because even those with an historical perspective - a 3,000-year-old Hittite script complains about the youth of that time - recognise that there are causes for concern. Football hooliganism may have abated (temporarily) but yobbishness continues.

There are, of course, no statistics to show whether or not the youth of today are more or less likely than previous generations to be rude to old ladies or, indeed, lift their kilt at a Tory conference ball. But the crime statistics relating to more serious forms of yobbishness are worrying. Inevitably, teachers are held partly responsible. "To act as scapegoat" should be written into their job description. But the profession is not guilty as charged. Teacher-pupil relationships have undoubtedly changed in the past 30 years, and children from former Commonwealth countries sometimes find it hard to adjust to the informality of the British classroom. None the less, schools continue to pass on moral precepts to the young, even though politicians such as John Patten have often suggested otherwise.

It is undoubtedly true, however, that the education system too often fails to prevent academically weak teenagers from leaving school with a low level of self-esteem and an inversely high level of resentment. Sir Ron Dearing is probably right to assert that a new emphasis on vocational education at key stage 4 could help to counteract this problem. It is also undeniable that some education authorities take a scandalously long time to find alternative schools for pupils who have been expelled - a wait of nine months, or even longer, is not at all unusual. This can hardly help to foster a sense of self-worth and socially acceptable behaviour in some of the country's most disaffected teenagers who know they may face a life on the dole.

However, Youth Work Week, which starts on Monday, is a time for celebration rather than recrimination and it is apt that this issue of The TES should contain two articles on projects that are helping to inculcate more positive behaviour patterns - the feature on the work of the Solihull drop-in centre (TES 2, page 1) and the article on a successful primary school citizenship programme in Cleveland (TES 2, page 6). The Solihull project is clearly preventing "the moths" - the poetic local nickname for teenagers who gather under the lamp-posts at night - from fluttering around aimlessly, and is slowly building up their self-confidence. This type of facility, which the private sector would never offer, provides an essential meeting place for young people who may not be "clubbable". It also has a very important spin-off in that it can act as a crime deterrent (though youth workers often resent being regarded as an adjunct of the police force). The Petersburn Library and Teenage Drop-in Centre (TES 2, November 4) in Airdrie, Strathclyde, for example, has helped to bring about a 23 per cent drop in vandalism in its area with an imaginative programme that offers circus skills training and guitar lessons, as well as simple companionship.

This seems a much more constructive response to the problems of disadvantaged youth than minister of state for education Eric Forth's exhortation to magistrates to impose heavier fines on parents who condone truancy, although it does seem ludicrous that persistent offenders should be fined only Pounds 10. Shadow education secretary David Blunkett's announcement on the setting up of a task group on youth provision is another welcome development. But as Janet Paraskeva, director of the National Youth Agency, explained on this page on October 21, the youth service feels it deserves more than promises of a brighter future and cannot understand why the Government is so loath to invest the equivalent of Pounds 30 a head in its programmes when each youth crime costs Pounds 2,300 on average.

Increasingly, Britain's 6,000 youth workers are talking of their "Cinderella" service. That oft-used analogy may be misplaced, however. Cinders eventually found her fairy godmother, but it remains to be seen whether the youth service will be so lucky. During the coming week we must try to believe it is possible.

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