Partners in crime go back to school

Ian and Dave have been in prison for drugs and robbery. Just the right people to sort out problem pupils.

Ian Calder has returned to the school he walked out of 10 years ago. He was 13 when he sauntered through the gates of Burnage Lower School in Manchester, turning his back on education. He had no qualifications and, though he didn't realise it at the time, very little future.

Ian had long run more than a little wild; kicking his heels on the street he was soon drawn into the local drugs and gang scene. When events caught up with him they landed him behind bars for six years as he served sentences for a fistful of drugs and robbery charges.

Today, looking out into a classroom of pupils aged between 12 and 14, Ian sees himself - "and then some". These are some of the school's most persistently disruptive under-achievers. They've been referred to Ian's weekly hour-long session in the hope that they can be put back on the straight and narrow. One boy actually referred himself.

Ian talks to the pupils candidly about his time in prison, his catalogue of scrapes on the street, his failings. But Ian is not simply here to influence by deterrent, his role is a far more complex one - part mentor, part counsellor, sometime older brother, father figure even.

In Manchester, expulsions cost the city millions of pounds, leading to record levels of juvenile crime. Across the country, permanent exclusions leapt from 2,910 in 1990/91 to just over 12,000 five years later. Exclusions cost the education, health and social services pounds 81m in 1997. If, on the other hand, those pupils had managed to stay in full-time schooling, it would have cost only pounds 34m.

There are other worrying statistics: Afro-Caribbean boys are five times more likely to be expelled than white boys. And of those pupils who are permanently excluded from schooling, fewer than one in six return to full- time education.

Ian regards what he does as a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week calling, even though there is only funding to employ him part-time. His partner, Dave Gregory, was supposed to be taking this session with him, but he's been held up at another school. He was called in to talk to a girl who had run away from home, then to another school to talk to a girl who was depressed about her bed-ridden mother, and to another to deal with two girls who had had a fight over a boy.

Ian and Dave's mobiles are constantly chirping. On a Sunday morning last month, they spent five hours at a local police station with a mother who had reached the end of her tether with her 14-year-old son. "Trouble don't keep office hours," says Ian. Between them they cover 11 Manchester schools. However, despite the appointment of two new part-time female mentors, the service is stretched to the limit.

Although there are no books or pens on the desks in front of Ian's charges, this session is far from an easy option for pupils who take it. Ian is an extremely hard task-master, who takes no nonsense. He refuses to let them imagine themselves as victims of circumstance. Ranging around the front of the class, he harangues the boys to stop mumbling, to sit up, put their shoulders back and to speak clearly, with pride and purpose. Their back-chat, truancy and poor performance is nobody's fault but their own, he tells them. This time at school is more valuable than they could ever realise. He, too, thought he would be 13 forever.

It's a tough, cold world out there. "Yous ain't all that," he says. "You don't know nowt, so don't be going on with yourself like you the man. Another kid was drilled [shot] last weekend. He was your cousin wasn't he?" Ian nods at a boy in the second row. "Yous are the future. Which of yous is going to stop the killing? Which of yous is going change the world? You gotta believe in yourself."

The pupils hang on his every word, their respect self-evident. They discuss their hopes, dreams and ambitions. Ian calls one boy out to the front so they can all share in his recent success at a local gymnastics competition. Ian has him stand on his hands against the wall and do press-ups. "Yous support each other in the foolishness that you're in, so why not the good?" he reasons with them.

Later, he has another boy stand on the teacher's desk so the others can "build him up". They're no longer slouching in their chairs, shoulders defensively hunched, eyes cast down. "They're angry because they've got nobody to speak to about their fears," reckons Dave.

"They bring that anger into school and direct it at the nearest figure of authority, the teacher. School stops being a place of learning and becomes a battleground for recognition.

"They throw up this mask, but it just hides a lot of hurt," Dave says of the boys' street-style posturing. "They reckon they the man when they slouch at the back of class, sniggering and whispering. They can't put up their hand and say that they don't understand, just like they can't talk about their emotions."

Their emotional immaturity and hostility reaches far beyond the classroom, he says: "They're going to have relationships with women and they're not going to be able to express their emotions. Then they're going to have children and pass all their problems onto their kids, and the viciousness will start all over."

Inspired by a project at North London College, mentoring was adopted at City College, Manchester, in 1991. Although it was originally devised for pupils with problems adjusting to further education, there was a demand from local schools.

Three years ago, the mentors were drafted in to Oakwood High School to deal with growing friction between rival gangs. The changes worked: playground tensions were quickly relieved and a perceptible change in classroom atmosphere became apparent. The year before, there had been seven expulsions. After the mentors arrived, there was one.

Jim Reddy, the head of year nine - the 13- and 14-year-olds - at Burnage Lower, believes that the boys whom he has referred to the mentors have calmed down considerably. "They are far from angelic, but now there are fewer problems with negative, confrontational relationships with teachers, and the incidents of violence and truancy have become less severe. Indirectly, it has been positive for the whole school."

Calling in the mentors is not an easy decision for any school to make. Ian and Dave are hardly typical role models. Run a police check and you'll turn up more than just a few parking tickets (Dave has also served time for drugs and robbery charges).

However, the pupils can relate to them. They were born and bred in the immediate community and are street-wise in their dress-sense and vocabulary. They understand, first hand, the pressures on teenagers in the inner city. They bridge the gulf between teacher and pupil, pupil and parent, and parent and school. They also bridge the gulf between trendy politically correct theory and grass-roots reality. While the funding of the service depends on them mentoring Afro-Caribbean boys, they don't hesitate to help any child in trouble: Ian's class, for example, included three white boys, two Asian lads and several of mixed race.

"The child don't see no colour," says Ian. "They're in multi-cultural classes, getting on with each other. This is about determination, devotion and the love within themselves; them things don't have colour."

Ian and Dave are equally dismissive of adopting an American approach to mentoring in Britain. Last week there was a conference in Manchester entitled "Mentoring: transatlantic problems, universal solutions".

Several sociologists flew in from America to give keynote speeches. None of the Manchester-based mentors were invited to attend the conference, let alone speak. "As long as the authorities continue to look to America for answers, they'll be trying to force square pegs into round holes," reckons Dave.

"We've imported enough troubles from America, now we have to start mending them," he adds. "I wouldn't dare to go to America and tell them how to clean up their backyard."

Back at Burnage Lower School, when the bell rings, Ian's charges do not rush for the door, rather they wait (relatively) patiently while he runs through their reports, demanding that they account for their actions in minute detail.

Then the room must be tidied so that it is left just as it was when they arrived. Finally, the boys are allowed to throw up the hoods of their jackets and disperse in a blaze of loud puffers and trainers.

Ian pulls one pupil to the side to pick him up on a comment that he had made earlier. The boy had said that Ian was the only teacher he could be bothered to listen to.

Ian quietly reminds the boy that he's not a teacher, then he demands to know why, if the boy can relax during his sessions, he hasn't learnt how to pay attention during classes as well. The boy looks puzzled. Ian's not exactly sure whether he gets it, but he intends to keep hammering the message home until he does.

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