Home school, suicide, bikes and others

E-mail responses to letters@independent.co.uk, giving postal address and telephone number (no attachments).

A smear against parents who educate their children at home

Sir: Education authorities have no more duty to ensure that parents who want to teach their children at home provide them with a broad and balanced curriculum to suit their age and ability than the dietician or nutritionist at your local GP surgery has a duty to ensure the nutritional quality of a child's diet ("Home tutors need guidance", 5 August). In both cases it is the duty of the parent to ensure the wellbeing of their child and provide for their needs. Only if there is reason to believe that parents are failing in this duty do authorities have obligations to act.

It is not fair to use child welfare concerns to smear a law-abiding section of the community such as home educators, about whom there is no evidence of a cause for concern, by calling for special measures to monitor their lives. Unfortunately, we all know that children such as Victoria Climbie have been let down and failed by the authorities who did not act when a child in danger was known to them. Yet parents who dedicate themselves to giving their children something better than the state can offer have to tolerate being pointed out by these same professional groups who fail children, and in newspaper articles like yours, as potential child abusers who need to be watched.

These calls are based on ignorance and fear from the state education machine which has much about which to be concerned within its own system. Over 20 years of home educating I have seen an increasing number of families reject that system and do well for their children. We should be allowed to continue without undue hindrance.

BARBARA STARK
Mansfield, Nottinghamshire

Tragic suicide of a boy in custody

Sir: Any suicide by a young person is a tragedy. When it takes place in custody it is devastating for family and friends and for the staff. But none of that justifies your front page lead "The story of Adam" (11 August) and the tendentious conclusions you draw about Britain's treatment of young offenders.

Nobody wants children to be locked up. Sometimes, the courts decide that is necessary. In my experience they try almost every alternative before concluding that custody is the only remaining possibility. In this most tragic case you describe a looked-after child, clearly much loved by his family, but nevertheless someone who may have committed a terrible crime, leaving his victim in intensive care after Adam allegedly wounded him in the stomach with a bottle, leading to a charge of wounding with intent to commit grievous bodily harm. Even then he was placed in a non-secure home from which he absconded twice - defying a court order which prohibited him from returning to Burnley.

Hassockfield, where Adam was then sent, is not a prison. A secure training centre, commissioned and managed by the Youth Justice Board, it was designed specifically to care for vulnerable children. Like all STCs it is expensive because it has very high staffing and an entirely child-centred approach. STCs care for a number of extremely disturbed young people and do so with compassion. Hassockfield was commended by the Social Services Inspectorate in its recent inspection for its committed, transparent approach to child protection, and the enthusiasm and committed approach of the director and team.

Your coverage states that the number of young people in custody has increased by 50 per cent in the last nine months. This is not the case. The population of under-18s in custody in November 2003 was 2,755, which is slightly higher than the 2,748 that were in custody at the end of June this year. This follows a steady decrease in the population over 2003.

The Home Secretary and the Minister for Prisons have made it plain that there is no greater priority for the correctional services than reducing self-inflicted deaths. Sometimes the challenge seems overwhelming, with high levels of mental illness in those who are sent to custody and very high levels of self harm before being incarcerated. Despite this, with young people, and until this tragedy, we have seen some success, with no self-inflicted death in custody by someone aged under 16 since 1991.

None of that mitigates the grief which Adam's family must be feeling and the circumstances of this death will now be independently investigated. But this tragedy should not lead you or anyone to conclude that in responding to a court's decision to place a young person in custody, the Offender Management Service or the Youth Justice Board are blind to their vulnerability.

MARTIN NAREY
Chief Executive, National Offender Management Service, Home Office

Sir: I invite your readers to take another look at the picture of Adam Rickwood which adorned your front page. This surely is not just the happy go-lucky young lad portrayed in your opening blurb, the charming, sensitive youngster with a passion for windsurfing and a love of animals? The eyes are pin-sharp, intimidating, looking the camera square in the face and challenging it.

He may have loved his Jack Russell to bits, but aged 14 and "after drinking too much" he was stuck a broken bottle in a 20-year-old's stomach and put him into intensive care. I'm fairly happy with individuals like Adam being kept somewhere secure. One never knows when one might unconsciously arouse the suspicion or ire of such as Adam.

People like Adam consume a disproportionate amount of our childcare resources already . He was not halt, or lame, blind, disabled in any sense other than by his own actions and attitudes.

If we started to encourage success, fidelity, hard work, study, concern for others, a sense of pride in ourselves rather than a reliance on statutory agencies and the by now almost universal belief that everything that happens to us in life is determined by either good luck or malign fate then there might be fewer sad cases like Adam Rickwood, and that would be to the good of all of us.

JOHN WOOD
Shipston on Stour, Warwickshire

Sir: I found the report of the suicides of Adam Rickwood and the other young prisoners harrowing. Their tales are a sad reflection on a society that claims to care, yet will simply allow further punishment, adding to the long, sad list of abuses that many of these people have had to endure already.

I am a teacher in a secondary school, and it always causes me concern when pupils are excluded for behaviour which may be a result of their backgrounds, behaviour that is calling out for help. Yet it is frustrating that we can't help them within school as it takes people with special training to deal with the psychological problems that they have, and the issues they may not wish to face up to.

With such an academic emphasis on education these days from such a young age, they're often not given a chance to find something they can excel at. Excluding troublesome pupils without any kind of support to help them alter their ways, doesn't solve the problems, just moves them elsewhere - from school, to the streets, to prison.

I am not saying all offenders are the result of a terrible childhood, but all circumstances should be taken into account and appropriate help given to each one. There are no quick fixes, sadly, but the sooner we as a society look at crime and punishment in a different way then the sooner this sad loss of life and potential can be halted.

ANGELA PORTER
Pontypridd

Sir: Your report of the death of Adam Rickwood was unfair to the Youth Justice Board (YJB) and unfair to the staff at Britain's Young Offenders' Institutions (YOIs).

It is extremely difficult to create a system of supervision that guarantees zero suicide rates. Thousands of young offenders are "suicide risks" and your implication that the suicide of 15 seriously disturbed and troubled people since 1998 represents some form of state abuse of the young is a tad strong.

I have worked in the Youth Justice Board and the dedication and concern the staff have to protect young offenders cannot be faulted. Everything possible is done to prevent such sickening tragedies from occurring.

"Britain's treatment" of many of these young offenders was abusive from the start. They were let down by ill or absent parenting; they were let down by poor schools and abusive carers, and a society that turns its back on young drug users and dislocated youth. Perhaps it is the case that the only time these young offenders were looked after and treated properly in life was once they were in the care of the YOIs.

ANDREW HUNTER
West Wickham, Kent

Sir: With a record prison population and high rates of reoffending amongst released convicts, the last thing that we need is to build new prisons or to scrap electronic tagging ("Howard pledges to build as many prisons as necessary", 11 August).

If politicians are serious about cutting crime and making communities safer they should be basing policy on evidence about what works, rather than relying on simplistic solutions that have more to do with getting the next headline than preventing the next victim. Instead of locking yet more people up we need investment in measures to prevent children getting into trouble, expansion of mediation schemes which can resolve neighbourhood disputes, better treatment for offenders with mental health problems and greater availability of drug treatment, both inside and outside of the criminal justice system.

JOE LEVENSON
Esmée Fairbairn Foundation
London SW1

London's language

Sir: Well done, Roger Nobbs (letter, 10 August), for homing in on Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's delusion (Opinion, 9 August) that finding a Londoner in London is straightforward. She is clearly travelling around London isolated in a private bubble called "a car". I realised some years ago that I belong to an ethnic minority in London - a woman born and bred in London speaking received English who doesn't have a car (any more).

I don't mind, because London's glorious multiculturalism is one of its major attractions. However, I lived and worked abroad for over 25 years and mistakenly expected to hear my own language on the bus when I returned 11 years ago. As Roger Nobbs has so astutely pointed out, nowadays a London bus is the last place where you are likely to hear the English language.

My favourite story is of when I went to W H Smith at Hammersmith Broadway tube to get a paper . The handsome young Middle Eastern looking man who served me took my money and asked: "Where you from?" I told him I was London born and bred. He looked surprised and remarked: "From London, no, no; I never hear someone spoke like you in London before."

MOYA St LEGER
London W14

Blokes on bikes

Sir: Tim Luckhurst (Opinion, 9 August) wants born-again bikers to be free to kill themselves. He doesn't want the Government to require them to be trained before they are allowed to handle high-powered bikes on the open road.

Presumably such bikers have no grieving relatives, have no dependents, use private hospitals when they injure themselves, and do not require any state support when their injuries mean they cannot work - so back off emergency services and back off government and leave those poor blokes on their bikes alone!

The numbers of biking fatalities are high. I don't believe born-again bikers want to die. If they were better trained the numbers killed would be lower. If Tim Luckhurst is serious about his article he is a fool. Sometimes we have to protect fools from themselves. As we all know, a fool and his high-powered bike are easily parted.

COLIN McKENNA
Chichester, West Sussex

Cost of a life

Sir: You list things that £120,000 can buy ("Rowing team defends cost of £120,000 ocean rescue", 10 August) but seem to forget that it's only £30,000 per life!

Every mariner able to do so has to answer a distress call and hopes never to have to make one. To introduce the element of "cost" into an unforecastable and unavoidable accident is outrageous, especially when compared with the forecastable and avoidable rescue of the Morecambe Bay 160.

This team are to be congratulated for the courage and spirit which looked like taking them into the record books and benefiting charity, until an act of God.

ANDREW AGAR
Tuckenhay, Devon

IN BRIEF...

Run a mile

Sir: Regarding your piece "Tourists who leave it late win the race for bargain trips to Olympics" (10 August), my wife and I were disgusted a month ago at the prices quoted by airlines and hotels, without tickets, and have now made plans specifically to avoid Athens, now and in the future. A Greek tragedy or a lesson in logic?

HENRICUS PETERS
Chesham, Buckinghamshire

Rubbish tax

Sir: A rubbish tax (report, 9 August) would be unworkable for blocks of flats. The best idea would be a deposit system, as in Denmark, on things that can easily be recycled such as glass and cans. I used to live in Denmark and the system worked perfectly, and unlike a rubbish tax stopped people throwing their bottles on the street (if they did children would pick them up for extra pocket money).

DAVID HOLLAND
London SE12

Guilt by association

Sir: Quite thought-provoking that Naeem Malik (letter, 10 August) should say that "Islamophobes, like anti-Semites, keep asking Muslims to apologise for something for which we [British Muslims] are neither collectively nor individually responsible", yet, in the next breath, demands that the (British) Jewish community should, collectively, apologise for alleged "daily terror that is imposed in their name across the world"!

S GROSSMAN
Glasgow

Vacant smile

Sir: As a dentist I was interested to read that mints are positioned in the market as a breath-freshening alternative to brushing (Review, 9 August). Presumably for the tooth with a hole in the middle.

STEPHEN DODDING
Peterborough

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