Peter Stanford: The yobs are all right

Even if they really are the worst in Europe, as new research claims, British teenagers should not be coerced and punished into mending their ways. But there is a way to bring them back into the fold
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The Independent Online

The British teenager is said to be the biggest delinquent in Europe. It's a picture that I just don't recognise. When I casually pointed out to our teenage babysitter where we keep the beers in case he fancied one later on he looked at me in horror, as if I were offering him heroin. And my teenage niece made me feel like the juvenile as we sat watching TV together and she was the one tut-tutting as Jude Law got his kit off. "Is that really necessary?" she trilled. The old British taboos about drink and sex, it seems, are still very much alive and well.

Before you point it out, I know I am choosing an unrepresentative sample group, made up of middle class teenagers. But the presentation of the findings of the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) report (if not the report itself) has been equally skewed because of the failure to make any sort of allowance when considering its findings for the particular economic background of the indicted teenagers.

So it is no good standing at the gates of all the schools in Scotland in an attempt to spot the six in 10 boys who will, according to the report, spend their evenings loitering on the streets with their friends rather than at home. At Tony Blair's alma mater, Fettes, in Edinburgh, you will probably wait in vain. The problems the report highlights tend to happen in particular schools in particular neighbourhoods, characterised by poverty, social breakdown and exclusion.

The link between poverty and anti-social behaviour is, of course, often airily dismissed as a cliché, something that we sorted out years ago. But the problem is that by and large things become clichés because they go on containing a good deal of truth.

The inhibitor in all of this is that no one wants to be accused of being patronising or snobbish. We are very coy about talking about class in Britain nowadays. It is another thing that is said to have been wiped out years ago. Britain is one big, happy, well-off and cohesive family. Everyone is invited to the party. A forthcoming report from the Joseph Rowntree Trust will show that the public now refuses to believe there are any poor people left. Those on the margins are there, the pollsters were told, because they are lazy.

Cocooned as most of us are in such a fantasy world, it is then no surprise that the IPPR report has caused so much dismay and bemusement. It reminds us of an uncomfortable reality behind the politicians' glib phrases. Namely, that there is a whole underclass that remains untouched by economic growth, overlooked by the enterprise society and stubbornly rooted in an age where everyone else is mobile. The "problem teenagers" in the report are disproportionately part of that underclass.

The "solutions" that the Government has so far offered to their plight have merely exacerbated the divide. Take Asbos. If a difficult teenager breaks the terms of an Asbo, their parents also face sanctions. If he or she comes from a council or housing association home, the family can be evicted and left homeless. If the mother and father are home-owners, though, they can rest easy in their beds. Rather than reconnecting alienated families with the rest of Britain, Asbos drive them further away and add the burden of breaking up the family home to the load already carried by unhappy youngsters.

The IPPR report made great play of comparing British society with the rest of Europe. But surely all European societies have their own underclass? Is ours just bigger and more alienated? Or are there special factors at play in Britain? One eye-catching statistic highlighted in the report was that while only 64 per cent of British teenagers eat with their families, 93 per cent of Italians do. My brother has lived in Italy for the past 35 years and frequent exposure to society there has suggested some of the differences in approach that have left Britain at the top of the teenagers-from-hell league.

The economic divisions in Italy, for a start, are not as marked as in Britain. In Italian cities you will see fewer sink estates and fewer economically segregated neighbourhoods. Fewer - not none. What it means, though, is that the prosperous and poor rub along together more, bringing a greater cohesion within society.

The family unit, too, is stronger. It remains the cornerstone of Italian life at the same time as Britain seems anxious to downgrade it economically, socially and legally. The result is that while those Scottish youngsters apparently hate their family homes so much that they will stand in the freezing cold of a winter's night on a Glasgow street corner rather than go inside, Italian parents complain that they cannot get their children to move out, even when they reach their thirties.

And in terms of the statistic the IPPR report quotes, Italian families do seem on the basis of my admittedly unscientific observations to eat wholesome food together round a table - while we are now busy building acres of starter homes with kitchens and sitting rooms that leave space only for a tray on the knees in front of the TV and a microwave. In simple terms of parenting, wherein most experts suggest lies the root of our problem, you cannot help but notice that in Italy the standard mum and dad simply do not operate in the long-hours working culture that here is turning our family homes into dormitories.

These are general observations and it is easy to present too rosy a picture. Yet, to take a lead from Italy, what emerges most strongly from the report is a challenge to ourselves in what has been designated End Child Poverty month: first to recognise that current prosperity continues to exclude an underclass of which disruptive teenagers are only the most visible manifestation; then to confront what it calls the "increasing disconnection" between adults and teenagers that leads too many youngsters of all backgrounds to follow the current trend to dismiss anyone over 25 as witless and to learn instead from each other; and finally to find ways to encourage stable, consistent and enlightened parenting methods that are not punitive - in the style of Blair's Asbos - but equally are not glib - as is David Cameron's sound-bite about "hugging hoodies".

The key to it all is how we choose to see troubled teenagers. The easiest response is to say that it has nothing to do with our own kids who are doing very nicely, thank you. As an alternative we can go along with the government line that tells us that criminalising everything and filling our jails with youngsters who step out of line will somehow finally make them into good citizens. All the evidence suggests it will not. Reoffending rates are as high as they have ever been. Or we can look through a different lens and recognise teenagers' destructive behaviour as an indication of need, not of nastiness or national disgrace.

We have to learn by the example of pioneering and successful projects with this age group, such as South London's Kids Company, run by the remarkable Camila Batmanghelidjh. Her recognition that behind youngsters' anti-social habits lies real vulnerability and dislocation, and her patient, therapeutic, imaginative work with them provides plenty of evidence that marginalised teenagers who feel society has no interest in them can be brought back into the fold from the underclass and nurtured into contributing members of society.

It is expensive, long-term, labour-intensive, one-to-one work that demands that we put prejudices to one side. However, if we are serious about moving off the top slot in this league table of failing and flailing teenagers, it is the only approach with any sort of positive track record.

Coercion, punishment and social exclusion - the more usual British responses - have so far only made the problem worse.

Peter Stanford is director of the Longford Trust