Chris Bryant: The myths it was good to see busted in a Victorian school building in Wales

A Political Life

Click to follow
The Independent Online

There's an image I can't get out of my mind. Thursday morning. Euston station.

The concourse was packed as several trains had been cancelled, but when the platform was announced, the vast crowd surged forward, a single stream of irritable passengers in a hurry to get themselves a seat. And in the middle of it all, a fair-haired young man having a panic attack, huddled, frightened, jostled, unable to get out of the way. He looked terrified and I couldn't even reach him as the crowd passed by.

I fear that is what is happening to a whole generation of young people. One million out of work, 260,000 for more than a year. Many have never had a job. Youngsters growing up with no experience of work, none of the social parameters work gives, none of the sense of personal value and self-esteem. Yet the evidence is that one in six men out of work for six months or more will suffer a major mental health problem. It's a massive generational panic attack waiting to happen and nobody seems to care.

But even in the toughest situation, intervention can help. I saw it in action last Friday at the Tai School, a pupil referral unit based in the oldest Victorian school building in the Rhondda. One particular moment struck me. It being Armistice Day, I was talking to a small class of 11-year-olds about the Second World War. One of the boys spoke in a pronounced American accent so I asked him about the US's involvement, which completely flummoxed him. Afterwards, I learnt that far from being American, he was a thoroughly Welsh Valleys lad with Asperger's syndrome, who has a habit of putting on accents. Some days he's American, some days French. It's all part of his condition.

He's not the only one. The school is a complete gallimaufry of youngsters. Mostly boys (90 per cent or so of children diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder – ASD – are boys), some pupils exhibit the classic symptoms of autism, averting their eyes, avoiding interaction, repeating the same thing time and again. Others have a whole range of behavioural problems. There are temper tantrums, deliberate silences, panic attacks. Several pupils come from very disturbed and chaotic families where drugs (or, more frequently, alcohol) have wreaked havoc. Many of the boys have older brothers with a similar condition and some are just downright naughty.

Lots of things fascinated me at Tai. Watching two different teachers, one male, one female, ensure in very different ways that all the children in the class were equally engaged at all times. Seeing the subtle but secure imposition of discipline, so that each child knows the parameters. Observing a group of 10 learn to work as a team to create an Armistice tableau without any one child dominating all the others or being excluded.

It was also good to have some myths busted. If you read the rabloid (rabid tabloid) press you would think that no teacher is ever allowed to touch or restrain a child. Utter tosh. All the teachers are trained in restraint because it is a necessary part of teaching. So is the appropriate use of a cuddle or, to use a Welsh word, a cwtch.

The good news is that, while some of these youngsters will remain vulnerable for the rest of their lives and there is a particular problem for girls with ASD when they become sexually mature, many of the youngsters will return to mainstream education and will lead immensely fulfilling lives. Intervention, especially if it is done early enough and with enough support, works.

Of course, it's not just the youngsters at Tai who have problems. A couple of years ago, I was talking to an eager youth worker from the Prince's Trust, who was working with a group of so-called "at risk" youngsters on Outward Bound courses. She knew they all really enjoyed the courses, so she couldn't understand why they all regularly rocked up late. One day, she had left her own watch at home so she asked one of them what the time was. Even though the lad wore a watch, he did not know how to tell the time. Nor did any of the others in the group. Similarly, in a classroom a few years ago, I asked a group of five-year-olds who was the eldest. No answer. Who's had a birthday recently? No answer. Who knows when their birthday is? Slightly less than a third put their hand up.

In part, these are the intractable problems of multiple deprivation. Children born into households where nobody works or has worked inevitably struggle. And, although as a gay man I'm reluctant to give lectures about parenting, I don't doubt that children need a strong set of parameters. We all do. Learning the difference between a smile and a frown, between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour is a vital part of growing up, and if kids grow up without clear parameters at home, it is difficult to impose discipline at school.

But, at the back of my mind, I have that young "American" lad and the young man at Euston, both of them invisible to the crowd, the world elbowing past them. Yes, the past few years have seen massive advances in understanding autism. When I was first elected, dozens of parents would get in touch every year, their nerves frazzled, desperate for an appropriate school place for their child newly diagnosed with ASD. Often they had lost their friends and their patience. Provision has improved and many fewer come to see me now.

But if we don't cut a similar swathe through youth unemployment, we shall reap a terrible future harvest of social problems. We cannot afford to ignore this or leave it to the market. We need a massive nationwide early intervention scheme to get young people into work. Otherwise we should all start panicking.