Even killers deserve to be taught well

20th July 2001 at 01:00
No one can predict how children from any background will turn out, but all need the chance education offers, argues Alexis Scott.

Of all the troubling criticisms made of the treatment in custody of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables and the subsequent decision to release them on licence, the one that has perhaps received less comment than others is that both boys have received a far better education than they would have done had they not committed the crime they did.

Regardless of whether one agrees with the decision to release the pair at this stage, the criticism regarding their education is worthy of analysis, not just as regards the cases of Thompson and Venables but as regards broader educational theory.

First, there is the assumption that the statement is true. Newspapers such as the Guardian and the Observer seem to accept that it is. As both boys were apparently virtually illiterate when they killed toddler James Bulger, it seems a fair enough assumption, given the available evidence on education achievement, that it was most unlikely either would have achieved A-levels - certainly by this stage in their lives.

There are always exceptions to the rule, and there are many early underachievers doing well later in life, often through extra-curricular studies. Accepting, however, that the juvenile criminal justice system most certainly did benefit Thompson and Venables, how can anyone see this as wrong? Are juvenile offenders to be denied a broad, academic education and if so, on what grounds?

On a wider scale, should education fit the crime or the offender? If so, why stop at convicted offenders? Where children and young people show signs of aggression or mental disturbance, or maybe just not fitting in with their peers, are regimes of physical fitness perhaps not more appropriate?

In other words, if they're that thick, let them do physical jerks. Remember the short, sharp shocks prescribed by the learned government in the 1980s?

It is an appalling indictment of British society that, only eight years ago, 10-year-olds Thompson and Venables were allowed to truant for such lengthy periods to the extent they were virtually illiterate.

The two were, of course, educated in England both before and after their crimes, and Scotland has prided itself on its separate and distinct education system since long before the inception of the Scottish Parliament.

Where education is seen as an unequivocal right, there can never be any question of denying it not just to juvenile offenders, but to adult ones too. The beneficial aspects of a humanitarian regime focusing on education are only too evident in Scotland's best known reformed criminal, Jimmy Boyle.

There must be many others less well-known. Still, there are regrettably far more examples of persons often guilty of far lesser crimes who go on to further their criminal careers because of their negative experiences in young offenders' institutions and "graduate" only to prison.

No one can predict how children of any background will turn out. There is no such thing as a child born to fail. I grew up in one of the more impoverished areas of Derry, Northern Ireland. We had no bathroom and my father was an alcoholic who gambled the housekeeping on the horses. If it had not been for the minister and good neighbours, we might have starved. Despite living in what, as far as Derry's middle classes were concerned, was a notorious area, I reckon I got a decent education and none of my peers were illiterate at 10.

Force of political circumstance ensured that at least one of my contemporaries blew himself up planting a bomb and doubtless others became involved in the disturbances. Education is no guarantee that any one of us will always be better human beings, still less avoid the criminal justice system. It does not guarantee a successful career and nor, perhaps, should it. It certainly does not guarantee happiness.

It can only be a right - a right to make choices, to develop an inner life, to be able to transport oneself mentally so as to relate to a world outwith one's experience. The cases of Venables and Thompson must not be used to deny children who have committed crimes - whether serious or otherwise - the right to a good, broad and yes academic education.

It is a sad reflection on British society that people - doubtless themselves educationally disadvantaged - believe it a desirable function of the criminal justice system to withhold education from child offenders , as if education were some sort of soft option that did not require any effort by the learner when it should be acknowledged as a right. Instead of denigrating the system for educating Thompson and Venables, we should be demanding a better education for all our children.

Alexis Scott is a solicitor and a legal adviser in the voluntary sector.

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