Independent Appeal: Ben's mother couldn't save him. Then Barnardo's stepped in...
How do you stop black boys from the Leeds district of Chapeltown graduating to a life of crime? Jonathan Brown finds out
Tuesday 07 December 2010
When Ben Wilson's behaviour started to go badly awry soon after his 13th birthday his mother tried the usual remedies. She read books about dealing with adolescents, set out rules, offered incentives and drew up progress charts, but the calls kept coming from school complaining about his threatening attitude.
Although at home everything seemed to be going well, once he was inside the gates of his high-achieving school it was another story. "I was having fights and disrespecting teachers and other people and being totally out of order. I was shouting and swearing and being abusive. I felt no one listened to me and I felt frustrated because when I had a problem no one would do anything about it," explains Ben.
His mum Deanne, a qualified teacher, was perplexed and horrified in equal measure. Nothing seemed to work and the stresses on the family were intolerable. She was called to collect Ben so many times that she had to quit her job. "You think, 'I am a teacher and this shouldn't be happening to me,'" she says. "It felt really frustrating. I did everything but there was no place I could go for help. When I asked my doctor if there were any referrals they said mental health, but I thought that was too drastic."
Ben's behaviour deteriorated to an unacceptable level. By year nine he held the school record for the number of detentions and "inclusion" sessions where he was taught apart from his classmates, but the final straw came when he threatened a member of staff. "A teacher got in my face and I told him to get out before I hit him," he admits. Ben was told he would be permanently excluded from school.
The Wilsons knew this would have disastrous implications for a young man who, despite aggressive behaviour towards his teachers, was a caring brother and son and highly intelligent. "A lot of it was pride," he recalls. "There was peer pressure from my friends. I didn't want to look like a chump in front of them. When I put my hand up the teachers ignored me so I'd shout and they would say, 'Shut up.' I let that get the better of me."
Luckily for Ben his school and parents worked together to find an answer. Reach is a project started by the community in the Chapeltown area of Leeds in 1994 to help black youths stay away from crime after being excluded from school.
The inner-city area has in the past been blighted by rioting and poverty still has high levels of unemployment among its well-established Afro-Caribbean population. Today Reach, which is funded by Barnardo's – one of the three charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal – deals with adolescent boys and girls aged 11-16 from all backgrounds although the majority are still from black and ethnic minority families.
Its service manager Ian St Rose has seen a lot of youngsters like Ben cross his path. Many are angry, many are confused, he says. "Some have been holding everything in for so long they are like a bottle of Coke that has been shaken up and they are ready to explode," he says.
Those referred to him undergo a 12-week course. Typically nine or 10 youngsters use the service four days a week, during which they are steered away from drugs and crime and learn to evaluate their lives and the impact their actions are having on their futures. All aim to leave with a qualification and credit towards their GCSEs plus improved self-esteem and better behaviour. Nearly all return to education.
For many it is the first time they have come across young black teachers who can relate to them. Others simply need to hear the positive message from someone they respect outside their own family.
A lot of young people resort to reinforcing the stereotype of the inner-city kid as their only way to exert power, says Mr St Rose. "Young people are exposed to so much more from the media and peer pressure. We are trying to get some balance for them."
Two years on, Ben is back in school studying for 14 GCSEs and, assuming he doesn't play for Manchester United, he wants to be a pilot. "At Reach there were kids like me. The staff said it was my life and no one could ruin it except me. They said the teachers can make or break you but it is up to you. The teachers there were different. They didn't call us children but treated us like young people. They made you feel respected," he says.
For his mother Deanne, Ben's transformation has been life changing: "He has matured and has realised his mistakes. Without Reach he would have ended up permanently excluded. Now he is getting cards that say 'well done'. He is doing exceptionally well."
The charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal
Children around the world cope daily with problems that are difficult for most of us to comprehend. For our Christmas Appeal this year we have chosen three charities which support vulnerable children everywhere.
* Children on the Edge was founded by Anita Roddick 20 years ago to help children institutionalised in Romanian orphanages. It still works in eastern Europe, supporting children with disabilities and girls at risk of sex trafficking. But it now works with Aids orphans in South Africa, post-tsunami trauma in Indonesia, disturbance in East Timor and Burmese refugee sex slaves in India and Thailand. www.childrenontheedge.org
* ChildHope works to bring hope and justice, colour and fun into the lives of extremely vulnerable children experiencing different forms of violence in 11 countries in Africa, Asia and South America. www.childhope.org.uk
* Barnardo's works with more than 100,000 of the most disadvantaged children in 415 specialised projects in communities across the UK. It works with children in poverty, homeless runaways, children caring for an ill parent, pupils at risk of being excluded from school, children with disabilities, teenagers leaving care, children who have been sexually abused and those with inappropriate sexual behaviour. It runs parenting programmes. www.barnardos.org.uk
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