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From exam student to an 'inevitable' prison career

LYING IN his bedroom at a south London children's home, 15-year-old John is philosophical about the benefits and drawbacks of nine months without education.

He has not attended school since the financial collapse in January of Peper Harow, a renowned therapeutic community for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. He was referred to the pounds 60,000-a-year residential school near Guildford, Surrey, by his local education authority in a bid to break his criminal behaviour. His school career had been plagued by truancy.

He still misses Peper Harow where he, his social worker and his teachers claim he was making his first real progress.

But he is not bothered about attending another school. No mainstream secondary is prepared to have him and, anyway, he appreciates the extra time to plan his frequent thefts and make subsequent court appearances.

Stocky, dark and marked by love bites, he is disarmingly frank about his exploits. 'If I didn't steal I wouldn't have my CD player or my trainers. You probably had a mum and dad to buy you what you needed. I didn't. Me and my bruv have always had to take what we needed.'

Today he brandishes pounds 60 he and another boy from the home made that afternoon from stealing and selling two kitchen appliances. But car radios are his speciality.

'I sell the radios on then I use the money to buy an old banger for maybe pounds 150. I can drive, you know, but I keep getting nicked for driving without a licence and insurance. Sometimes I use the car to do a job.'

Since his parents separated, when he was a baby, John has been cared for by a succession of foster parents and children's homes. His memory of his early years is sketchy but he and his older 'bruv', Jim, remember being taken into care when they were five and eight after neighbours reported them for stealing milk. 'I don't think the woman who was looking after us could have been doing a good job,' he concludes.

They remember being checked for bruises at school and say their foster father used to beat them.

Jim, 18, has been the one constant in John's life. Already the father of two children by two different ex-girlfriends, and more in prison than out, he is not an ideal role model. Since the closure of Peper Harow, he has once again been the main influence in John's life.

Jim is ambivalent about the way his younger brother's life is mimicking his own. 'While he was at Peper Harow, he became more like a real schoolboy. They had him in for five GCSEs. I don't want him to get into trouble but what can I tell him?

'Fact is, I left home and lived rough when I was 14 and I have managed to look after myself since then. I steal for a living and I can make more in a day than my friends earn in a week. When I was 15 I had my own pick-up truck and ran my own scrap business. I had enough money to club, run two cars, smoke some puff (cannabis) every day and buy the latest gear.'

Prison, he says, is an occupational hazard. 'At least while I am out I live like a king. I don't have any answers but I know prison does not work. The day they release me I am out stealing again.'

His younger brother John still talks fondly of Peper Harow, the staff and 'his GCSE mission' while he was there. He still marvels at how they did not force him to do anything but he gradually came round to attending class.

'We all cried when it closed. I really felt I was making it there for the first time. It was right to get me away from all this and all the bad influences. They just needed four more referrals to keep it open but they couldn't get them,' he said.

He now seems to see future incarceration as inevitable. The photo album which records his time at Peper Harow also displays a newspaper cutting which tells the story of one of the break-ins he committed. His room is full of items stamped HM Prisons, mementos from his frequent visits to see his brother. 'If I had not come into care I don't think I would be in this position. But prison? That's all to come yet.'

The names in this report have been changed.

(Photograph omitted)