Glittering smiles, wasted lives

It's hard to get excited by the A-level success of a few rich girls when so many leave school with no qualifications at all
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A teenage girl collapsed into her mother's arms on Thursday, sobbing with relief. This is a common enough story at this time of year, as newspapers adorn their front pages with pictures of emotional young women who have three, four or five grade As at A-level. One fee-paying school in south Manchester even organised a press conference to show off its results, like a FTSE 100 company unveiling record profits. (Schools, business, it's all the same these days.) But the girl I'm talking about, who also comes from Manchester, was overcome for a very different reason: she had just been freed from a women's prison, where she had spent six nights after being convicted of arson.

A teenage girl collapsed into her mother's arms on Thursday, sobbing with relief. This is a common enough story at this time of year, as newspapers adorn their front pages with pictures of emotional young women who have three, four or five grade As at A-level. One fee-paying school in south Manchester even organised a press conference to show off its results, like a FTSE 100 company unveiling record profits. (Schools, business, it's all the same these days.) But the girl I'm talking about, who also comes from Manchester, was overcome for a very different reason: she had just been freed from a women's prison, where she had spent six nights after being convicted of arson.

The 15-year-old, who cannot be named, was released on bail with two teenage boys after a private hearing at the Court of Appeal. At her trial, the judge accepted she had not intended to burn down a Church of England community centre when she started a fire in a bin, but sentenced her to six months in prison. Young people on estates and communities up and down the country must realise, he said, that the courts view their activities very seriously indeed. I'm not sure what he meant by estates - presumably he wasn't thinking about stately homes with thousands of acres of good pheasant shooting - but the overall message is clear. Some 15-year-olds are so dangerous they have to be banged up, even though it was only shameful delays in the court system that allowed Judge Adrian Smith to hand down a custodial sentence (the girl was too young for prison when she committed the offence last year).

These two stories about contemporary life in Manchester say a great deal about our attitudes to children. Girls in the best schools are now beating boys hands down in public exams, prompting breast-beating about a so-called crisis in masculinity. I can't help recalling that when girls lagged behind in exams, there was a resounding silence about what must have been, by analogy, a crisis in femininity. But the larger point is that there seem to be only two kinds of children in this country: angelic high achievers whose idea of a setback is having to go to Harvard rather than Oxford, and rampaging gangs of arsonists, rapists and murderers who frighten the life out of normal, upstanding citizens.

One minute we insist that our offspring must be cosseted and congratulated, the next we scream that it is we who need protecting from devil-children. And I wonder what the latter think, as they contemplate the world from juvenile offenders' institutions, about the soignée creatures, glowing with health, wealth and self-confidence, who pose unselfconsciously each August and talk excitedly about their glittering career prospects.

I certainly know what effect it has on me, bringing out all my latent class antagonism. I'm sure that when middle-class people go on about how much they care about children, they are not exactly lying. But what they mean is their own flesh and blood, along with the attractive children and teenagers whose pictures get into newspapers for one reason or another. Make no mistake: money buys exam results, which is the real story behind all the gleaming smiles and mutual congratulation. In 1998, a fifth of children whose parents were in unskilled manual jobs achieved five GCSE passes at grades A to C. But more than two-thirds of children of the professional and managerial classes got five GCSEs at this standard.

In the case of the former, this is because their parents are poor, have low aspirations and do not know how to work the educational system to best advantage. Most do not have the choice, as many of my friends have, of sending their children to fee-paying schools or of buying a house in a part of town with a good state school. It does not mean that children who grow up on council estates will inevitably graduate from school to the tender embrace of the criminal justice system, but social exclusion and its attendant disadvantages do not give 14-year-olds a flying start in life.

What we do know is that many of the devil-children who make headlines come from deprived backgrounds. Among the most notorious are Mary Bell, convicted of manslaughter at the age of 11; the 10-year-old boys who killed James Bulger; and Learco Chindamo, the 15-year-old who murdered the west London headmaster Philip Lawrence. I am not excusing their crimes when I say there is a link between the circumstances in which they were brought up and the dreadful things they did. No one, looking at their CVs, would confidently have predicted a first at Oxford followed by a career as a Harley Street consultant.

The problem is not confined to Britain. Senator Bill Bradley shocked the Democratic convention last week when he pointed out that if all the 13.5 million poor children in the US were gathered in one place, they would form a city bigger than New York. "We would then see child poverty," he added, "as the slow-motion national disaster that it is." Mr Bradley's image cleverly dramatised the fact that one-fifth of American children live in families with an income below $13,000 (£9,000) a year. As the International Herald Tribune pointed out, these are damning statistics in a nation whose politicians keep congratulating themselves on America's prosperity.

In Britain, the comparable figure is three million, or one in five, according to recent figures from Unicef. It is a far more urgent problem than girls out-performing boys at the top end of the education system. I really can't get worked up about the distribution of A grades among the most privileged teenagers in the country while so many bright children leave school with no qualifications at all.

A young woman screams for help. No one goes to her assistance, and eventually the hostel where she is staying falls silent. Some hours later, someone notices that her door is locked on the outside. When it is broken open, her body is discovered inside. She has been raped and murdered. What do the Thai police conclude from this grim scenario? Why, that 23-year-old Kirsty Jones consented to sex games which went too far.

This offensive suggestion, made by the chief investigating officer, was withdrawn on Thursday by General Aram Chanpem, head of police in northern Thailand. It may have been prompted by assumptions in South-East Asia about Western promiscuity, but that does not excuse it. On the contrary, it is an example of the unwillingness of men the world over to accept that a woman has been raped. Unless the victim is a virgin - preferably a nun - policemen, judges and juries perform mental somersaults to convince themselves it's her fault. That is why the conviction rate in Britain has fallen to an all-time low of 7.5 per cent. And yes, it does mean that if a man rapes you, he will almost certainly get away with it.

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