Young offenders' burden to be shared

Labour sees education as vital to make communities safer, reports Diane Spencer.

Schools will have to do their bit in the battle against youth crime. This message has been coming through loud and clear from the Home Secretary, a man determined to be as tough on crime as his Conservative predecessor.

Jack Straw lost no time in opposition sounding out grassroots opinion on how to combat the rising numbers of persistent young offenders who ruin life for so many people, mainly in the inner cities.

His youth justice task force is neck and neck with the Department for Education and Employment in proposing future legislation.

Despite wanting to match former Home Secretary Michael Howard for toughness, Mr Straw is going about the job differently. For a start, he has realised that youth crime cannot be dealt with in isolation.

So at last week's launch of the latest consultation paper it was no surprise to see Estelle Morris, schools minister, on the platform with health minister Paul Boateng and representatives from the Lord Chancellor's and the Attorney General's offices.

Mr Straw's team is well aware of one statistic: 70 per cent of teenage offenders are either regular truants or have been excluded from school.

Education and health are "not in the game" at the moment, Norman Warner, the Home Secretary's senior policy adviser, told The TES. He said schools should be less obsessed with exam results as the only performance indicator. There were no financial incentives to keep disruptive pupils in school so it was easy for heads to pass the problem on to someone else.

The youth offender teams, proposed in a consultation paper two weeks ago, would force education chiefs to consider the role ofschools in tackling youth crime, he said. The teams, including police and probation officers, social workers, education and health authority staff at chief officer level, will draw up strategic plans for youth justice work, to be reviewed annually.

The Government's aim is to make the youth justice system more efficient and effective at both the correction and prevention of offending, Mr Straw told some 150 delegates from the police, the legal profession, social services and education departments at the London conference.

Labour's policies were reinforced by a 1996 Audit Commission report, Misspent Youth, which concluded that the current system for dealing with youth crime was inefficient and expensive, "while little is done to deal effectively with juvenile nuisance".

A disproportionate amount of crime is committed by a hard core of persistent young offenders with about 3 per cent responsible for a quarter of offences. The Government believes that too little emphasis is given to changing offending behaviour, the Youth Court system is too slow, and there is an absence of a national strategic direction.

Mr Warner said that the Government wanted schools to help to produce decent citizens as well as educating them. "Jack Straw knows from his experience as the chair of governors of Pimlico comprehensive that if a school turns its back on these kids, they're lost."

Ms Morris said her department was worried about the rapid increase in the number of children excluded from school over the past five years. She knew there was an incentive to exclude because schools were measuring success by exam results. But she thought it was just as important to get a child who had been branded as a failure to pass perhaps just one exam.

She called for more emphasis on prevention. Schools, the police and other agencies should get together to identify children who were not getting support at home. The Government's switch of funding to literacy and numeracy initiatives such as the summer schools, and in-service training for primary teachers would make a difference, she said. "If by 11 they cannot read or write, then I fear they're heading your way," she said, referring to the magistrates, police and lawyers present.

Mr Warner agreed, adding that children in greatest need of education got the least. The two hours a week tuition for many excluded pupils was "a joke - a self-fulfilling prophecy".

Mr Straw said his proposals would deal with young offenders at the crucial age between 12 and 14. The present cautioning system appears to be "soft" and so stores up trouble for the future, he said.

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