Teachers love regaling each other with horror stories about their problem pupils. Yet few can match the problems that face pupils at one Leicester "school". Picture this: a boys' school where many have spent their childhood in care; where 40 per cent are fathers, some of them teenagers; where the incidence of dyslexia is three times the national average; where attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity are problems that have never been acknowledged; and where three boys have committed suicide in the past year.
No, it's not a normal school. These boys don't go home at the end of the day. They are banged up, some of them for several years, at Glen Parva young offenders' institution.
This is the place Sir David Ramsbotham, chief inspector of prisons, slammed on the BBC documentary Inside in November, criticising its "atmosphere of despair". The Times reported that he "walked out in disgust at the conditions" after suspending an inspection pending urgent improvements.
Though not targeting Glen Parva specifically, Sir David also complained about the poor quality of education in young offender institutions generally, citing cases of 15 to 18-year-olds being given toddlers' colouring books with which to work.
Not surprisingly, the people who provide the education at Glen Parva - Birmingham-based Mill Wharf Education Services - beg to differ. They believe they offer hope in place of despair, and invited me to see for myself.
Glen Parva has a maximum of 900 inmates, 140 of whom have currently opted for education. Spend a morning in the education department and it's easy to forget those frightening statistics. It's a sanctuary of purposeful calm.
This is the only part of the prison in which inmates are called by their first names. It is also the only section where there are no prison officers in evidence. This doesn't mean it's Liberty Hall. These aren't the youngsters who form the subject of outraged tabloid headlines about "therapeutic holidays" to exotic climes. But they are treated in a positive and caring manner.
For some, it is the first positive interaction they've had with adults in positions of authority. And it pays off. A panic button on the wall of each room will summon prison officers immediately there is any trouble. But in the two years that Frances Crockwell has been Mill Wharf's education co-ordinator at Glen Parva, the buttons have only ever been used - and rarely - by the boys as a joke. It is not a very clever joke, however, since sounding the panic button brings an instant response from discipline officers.
As in all well-managed schools, a clear system of rewards and sanctions ensures that the "lads", as Ms Crockwell, a former deputy head in Northamptonshire, calls them, know the consequences of infringing the rules. "If a lad oversteps the mark," she says, "he can get time added on to his sentence by a formal adjudication system, overseen by governors. " A lesser sanction is a week's expulsion, which means being confined to the cells for the four-and-a-half hours they would otherwise be in classes.
Inside their barred classrooms these lads are not only respectful but responsive, too. One 19-year-old known as Melody says: "Teachers here listen to you and try to understand you. They know more about your background and will chat to you on your level." With an average of 10 inmates to every teacher, there is an intimacy simply not possible in conventional school settings.
A "significant" number, according to Ms Crockwell, have been excluded from school or, for other reasons, have not attended school since the age of 11. A recent Cambridge University study revealed that dyslexia among Glen Parva inmates, at 40 per cent, is more than three times the national school average. Few, though, have had statements of special needs. Ms Crockwell says attention deficit and hyperactivity are other problems.
To assess the inmates' basic academic skills, the prison puts all those convicted (as opposed to on remand) through a three-week education course. During this period, they are tested, screened and given careers advice. Anyone who chooses education instead of one of the other "jobs" available (in the laundry, kitchens, cleaning, gardens or the vocational training workshops) is paid 75p a session to spend on food, toiletries and tobacco. This adds up to around a fiver a week, compared to twice that for the "workers".
Of the 140 who choose education, 70 are in the convicted units and attend lessons full-time, 50 are on remand (which may mean they attend for only a day or two before being moved elsewhere) and the remaining 20 study through distance-learning or from the prison hospital.
Those who opt for education take an active role in their National Record of Achievemen t (NRA). Ms Crockwell says: "Many of these lads have been in care. They're completely institutionalised. They can't cook for themselves and all decisions are made for them. We want them to make decisions for themselves, and the education department is the only place where they have choices."
One compulsory item is studying information technology. "The lads all do their own NRAs on computer," says Ms Crockwell. "And when they come to review their programme of studies here, they see they've achieved a lot, which gives them a great confidence boost."
Of the 16 inmates taking GCSEs last summer, 62 per cent received grades A to C, a proportion well above the national average. Among the GCSE, A-level and accredited vocational courses on offer is a parenting class. This gives the young dads at Glen Parva a chance to brush up their parental skills, from playing with babies' shape-sorters to discussing how best to communicate with their children. One 18-year-old was looking forward to seeing
his child: "You take him to the park, discuss things with him man-to-man, play with toys and then tidy up."
For him, education is more than just doing time. "If I wasn't doing education, there's loads of options - like workshops and gardens and things like that. But what you'd learn from those is nothing. Who can't dig a hole? Doing education here keeps your brain ticking.
All the guys back in the unit who don't do anything just sit there saying 'duh'."
Three suicides at Glen Parva in the past year put the importance of education into perspective. "We have no business being here if our aim is not to rehabilitate," says Ms Crockwell.
Future initiatives offer new hope. A separate juvenile unit is being established for the 15-year-olds, to give them distance from the older boys. In addition, all prison officers will be receiving in-service training on adolescence.
Sir David, among many, believes it is high time. "Staff must be trained to treat adolescents as adolescents first, then as criminals."