The alternative to crime and exclusions

Sarah Taylor, a mother at 13, has brought on the usual moral braying. With a little money in the right places, we could make a difference
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Imagine our world turned on its head. You wake up one morning, turn on the Today programme, and hear politicians saying bizarre things. They have stopped talking nonsense about a fundamental moral crisis. They have stopped boasting about their own moral, Christian and family credentials. They have got off their soapboxes about children such as Sarah Taylor, a 13-year-old from the Ridings school - one of 60 disruptive pupils threatened with expulsion - who has just given birth to a baby girl.

First you hear the magic words, "What this problem really needs is some money thrown at it." Then you hear the politician say, "It's no use wringing your hands and moaning about the appalling behaviour of demon children, teenage mothers, scrounging fathers and extended criminal families. Let's do something about it that really does work."

A panoply of excellent projects is then laid out before your unbelieving ears, all of which have been evaluated and proven to work.

The Rockbottom Estate has high crime, high unemployment, terrible local schools, vandalised tumble-down buildings, many helpless single mothers, fathers adrift, and high drug use. Crime and drugs from Rockbottom burst out and frighten the life out of the surrounding district. Does Rockbottom need a moral lecture?

It needs practical projects that work. Here are just some sample schemes from a huge array, all of them deeply underfunded, struggling, often closing down despite proven success.

Parenting: National Newpin is an intensive scheme for mothers who are not coping. At a centre, with mentors offering friendly support 24 hours a day, they explore their own emotional problems - usually severe, having themselves been unmothered. They develop their relationships with their babies and children and learn how to play with them. Most of the programmes are now run by mothers who have themselves been through Newpin. Children from Newpin do better in every way when they get to nursery and primary school. It costs pounds 3,000 per family - money rapidly saved on future expensive problems. Newpin is currently closing, not opening, centres, for lack of money.

Nurseries: All nurseries greatly improve children's chances. Results of the seven and 11-year-old tests are already showing the nursery children doing best. But intensive therapeutic programmes for deprived children have astounding results. High Scope has been imported from America, where children followed over 30 years had a 30 per cent lower crime rate when they grew up, with half as many on welfare. Seven dollars was saved on crime and benefits for every dollar spent. The Home Office no longer funds British High Scope, which struggles for funds. It should be in every deprived area.

Out-of-school schemes: Every child should have a place in an after-school club, with special teachers, to learn, as well as play. A summer university in London's Tower Hamlets, using college premises, shows what can be done. 1,700 children joined during the holidays, gaining all kinds of certificates. Crime in the area plummeted. The virtually extinct Youth Service can offer similar results, given a chance.

One of the most successful headteachers in a tough district never excludes pupils, because she says their behaviour has improved sharply since they joined a brilliant local play scheme emphasising drama. The Millennium Trust turned down a bid to create 1,000 such schemes at a cost of pounds 200m.

Care: 51,000 children in care grow up to cause a great deal of crime - 26 per cent of prisoners come from care. Hardly surprising, since three- quarters leave care with no qualifications at all (nationally, only 9 per cent do as badly). One in seven girls leaving care is pregnant or already has a baby. These most vulnerable children who will do most harm get virtually no therapy or treatment and no education. Yet each child in care costs pounds 34,000 a year, or pounds 100,000 in a secure unit. Helping families and catching problems early would save money. Once these children are in care, investing in their treatment would yield rich dividends.

Pregnancy: While bad boys do crime, bad girls do themselves in by getting pregnant. Research shows that areas with many well-publicised birth-control clinics for the young have lower pregnancy rates, which is why teenage pregnancy has been falling recently. Exeter University recently showed how an intensive 30-hour course in sex education for 12- to 16-year-olds hugely diminished the number having under-age sex, compared with an identical neighbouring school. It cost pounds 45 per pupil, peanuts compared with the cost of abortion, let alone birth.

Housing estates: the Priority Estates scheme and others show what works - permanent professional workers helping residents' associations to thrive with money they control for repairs. These estates need teams of caretakers on call, police foot patrols, high-quality youth clubs, adult education and training.

Crime: For offenders, the right schemes can halve the numbers who re- offend, both in the community and in prison. This means therapy in highly focused groups. But it works. So does education and literacy. A recent Chief Inspector of Prisons report showed how high use of good therapy in Latchmere prison cut in half the number who re-offended, compared with similar prisoners elsewhere.

So imagine a new world order in which social workers were highly trained and highly valued. Teachers were well-paid and praised. We would be proud of all they could do, give them resources to do it and glow with a sense of our public morality as a society.

When pin-striped prats, wet behind the ears, brayed abuse in Parliament at teachers and social workers, the people entrusted to do good on our behalf, they would be booed off the benches.

"But surely," asks an astounded James Naughtie, "all this will mean raising taxes to pay for it?" "Yes, indeed," says the politician. "But we will explain to the voters that if they are really panicking about the disintegration of life at the bottom, if they live in terror of crime, we can do something for sums of money that are not colossal. We are not going to give handouts to the poor, because that does little good. But we will use taxpayers' money wisely and show how well social investment pays."

Dream on.