Tory ideas on the turn

17th December 2004 at 00:00
Trendspotters will have noticed the latest buzz in educational matters.

Hard on the heels of "wraparound educare" from Charles Clarke comes a Tory promise of "turnaround schools".

This mania for portmanteau words with a vaguely cuddly suffix can only grow: though it could go quickly downhill with the possibility of bossaround schools for training tough heads, sleep-around schools for the liberated, and muckaround schools for the hardline AS Neillites.

I have been brooding, though, about the Conservatives' new big idea, schools for the excluded. What would life be like at St Turnaround's? A blazer badge showing the marks left by a skidding U-turn, the gilt motto "Never Too Late ", the school song "Jolly Asbo-ating Weather" and a uniform incorporating tasteful electronic ankle-tag in house colours?

Might it work, and if so what would be the chief engine of change? Should it, perhaps, be wraparound as well as turnaround, since we now know that boarding schools can work astonishingly well for children of chaotic families? Should there be a nightly tuckaround from a cosy Matron?

On principle, I have to admit that I prefer the idea of well-resourced withdrawal units attached to real schools, if only because it is easier to feed reformed offenders back into the system if they are on the same site.

But laying that aside, what most assists the turning-round of the troublesome? Asking around, I collected a few pearls of advice. Few of them, alas, come cheap or without grief.

The first, according to prison educators and ex-prisoners, is that people are like those flip-over toy cars: nothing makes them change direction quicker than banging into a wall. The moment you hit the concrete is when you finally go "Wooah! Something must change!". Ask any recovering addict.

Chaps start learning to read in prison who never cared about learning anything outside. Drug-dependent women separated from their children feel as if cold water has been dashed in their faces, and may abruptly wake up.

However, a criminal record and a prison sentence have too many disadvantages to be actually recommended.

It is clear, though, that a sudden dramatic change can have a remarkable effect on the speed of learning. Every year we read stories of asylum-seeking kids who get here with barely a word of English, and two or three years later brandish a hatful of A* GCSEs or a place at Cambridge.

Obviously, they're clever; but further down the line you get equally striking examples of uprooted children hurling themselves into rapid learning. As a travelling diplo-brat I arrived at my French school at nine, not speaking a word beyond the "Madame Souris" book, and two years later came top in French dictee and composition. It's something to do with newness, and concentration, and having something to prove, and being thrown in at the deep end rather than bored witless by slow, slow years of routine classes.

So a bit of despair and a complete change... what else? We speak keenly of mentoring; but thinking over the rogues, scallies, misfits, louts, rebels and stroppy little madams I have known, the interesting thing is that the mentors who change their academic and behavioural record for the better are often the ones who have nothing official to do with either. They are football coaches, swimming teachers, expedition leaders, tall-ship bo'suns, choirmasters; adults who give your horrid-looking rock group somewhere to practice; scruffy old guys down the road who give you a beat-up guitar or show you how to dismantle a motorbike; employers who give you a paper round or Saturday job and expect you to toe the line, but don't make any wider, pompous psychobabble-y judgement about you.

Or sometimes it's the great outdoors and animals which do the trick: it is sad that the prison service is short-sightedly giving up its Suffolk Punch stud, which has a record of calming, cheering and empowering difficult young offenders at Hollesley Bay Colony.

High art helps, too, and higher than you'd think. Ask the London Shakespeare Workout, fabulous actors who go into prisons and entangle the inmates in 17th-century language and imagery until quite unexpectedly some silent glowering figure bursts out in unwontedly verbal self-expression and writes riffs and codas around Macbeth, relieved to find rhythms which say the unsayable.

Or ask anyone who has watched terrifying-looking kids getting excited about a ballet or opera project, hurling themselves into it head-on because they know so little that they don't yet know it's posh.

So there's your turnaround school. It's got music and sport and adventure trips and opera and theatre and valued work and minimal psychobabble and clear good-humoured boundaries and lots of staff and rolling broad acres and the odd animal.

Oh, blast! I have accidentally invented a rather expensive private school circa 1965. Probably not quite what Mr Howard was thinking of.

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