Creative approach helps to get young offenders back on track

3rd September 2010 at 01:00
Art course for those convicted of serious crimes leaves participants with designs on FE

Weeks ago they were roaming the streets, earning themselves criminal records. Now the same teenagers are hard at work creating art and making plans to go back to school and college this month.

Their change of lifestyle is a result of an intensive course run by the Youth Justice Board (YJB). Every summer, almost 1,000 children from around the UK, some wearing tags and all convicted of serious offences, gather for the Summer Arts Colleges programme.

It is part of the restorative approach taken by the YJB, which aims to work with young offenders instead of locking them up.

Almost 50 of the art schemes are held around the country every year. Findings show a reduction in the number of young people not in education, employment or training (Neet) after completing the course.

In Ealing, west London, ten boys aged 15 to 18 are hard at work. They have been to Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire and taken pictures of animals. Now they are making masks inspired by their day out.

All have recently been released from custody or are attending the course as part of community sentences. Their convictions include robbery and possession of drugs with intent to supply.

"They've all had a difficult school history, lots have been permanently excluded, many have statements of special educational need - that's if they've been in lessons enough for that to be assessed," said Louise Morgan, Ealing youth offending team education co-ordinator. "Most have missed a lot of education. This is really their last chance."

One 17-year-old on the course, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was given a place as an alternative to jail. This means he can return to his course at a local college in September.

"This keeps us occupied, it keeps us off the streets, and it means we won't cause trouble," he said. "Every day is not boring now, and I want to go to university."

Summer college participants are monitored for three months after the course ends. Last year 45 per cent of the children who attended the Ealing course were Neets. This dropped to 28 per cent when the course ended; similar figures were reported at other schemes around the country.

Almost three-quarters of young offenders are thought to have special educational needs, but most have not been properly diagnosed because of their challenging behaviour.

"I've been working with children with SEN for 20 years and this is the most wonderful thing I've been involved with - it really transforms young people," said Mrs Morgan.

At the start and end of the course, the teenagers take a literacy and numeracy test. Seventy per cent of participants show improvement.

The children also spend time with careers advisers from government service Connexions and are assigned a personal tutor.

Although the activities might be fun, the course is not meant to be an "easy option" according to Martin Stephenson, executive director of Unitas, a charity that helps young people access education and which organises the art courses with the YJB.

"It's a longer day than they would get in school. If they don't turn up we collect them.

"Many say they don't want to come, or they don't like art. That changes," he said.

"We go to great efforts not to separate children from the community or hide them away," said Mr Stephenson.

"We want them to feel they are the same as any other student."

YOUTH JUSTICE - 'Bright kids go down wrong path'

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has expressed doubts about the effectiveness of locking up criminals in combating crime.

The Youth Justice Board (YJB) is hopeful that this kind of attitude will help it secure funding as it carries out rehabilitative work with young offenders. The summer art courses run for up to six weeks; each one costs #163;20,000.

"We are increasingly confident this approach is worthwhile, it really does change children's behaviour. Jailing them does not," said YJB chair Frances Done.

"We want to give children a reason for getting up in the morning, to feel their life is worthwhile. Courses like this change their lives completely. These lads in Ealing are bright; they've just gone down the wrong path, and now I hope they will choose the right one."

45% - Proportion of children on Ealing course who were Neets.

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