Johann Hari: Children we abandon at our peril

As the new school year begins, there are totally unwatched kids heading towards criminality

Thursday 11 September 2008 00:00 BST

Across Britain, children are half-gleeful and half-groaning as they finally head back to school. But amidst the bustle of the school-run, there are tens of thousands of forgotten children who aren't going anywhere. They are being denied an education – and set up to fail for life. The children left outside the school gates fall into four quite different groups – and each one is a scandal.

The Untaught One: the "home schooled." Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to send your kids to school in Britain. If you decide to keep you child indoors and uneducated, you don't have to inform the local authority – and nobody will come looking. As a result, we have no idea how many children are kept at home. Nobody is counting. But the current estimate is 50,000.

Of course, some of these kids are well-taught – but there is disturbing evidence they are a minority. When the investigative journalist Rob Blackhurst journeyed into the world of British home-schooling, he discovered 12-year-old children who had not been taught to read. The most detailed survey of British parents teaching their kids at home found that 50 per cent don't believe in teaching literacy to eight-year-olds. This leaves Britain with a weirdly divided school system. The majority of kids are constantly cooking on the SAT-grill, endlessly tested and Ofsted-ed – while this minority are totally unwatched.

This means children can even disappear. Seven-year-old Khyra Ishaq, who was found starved to death in her home in Birmingham earlier this year, had been withdrawn from the school system to be "home-schooled". For precisely this reason, home-schooling is illegal in Germany. The law here needs to be altered so local authorities regularly interview home-schooled kids. If they aren't being properly taught, they should be required to enter the normal school system immediately.

The Untaught Two: the "permanently excluded". Over 10,000 children in Britain have been chucked out of school for bad behaviour, and can't make their way back. I know a 13-year-old boy – let's call him Peter – who was expelled for kicking his teacher. He was obviously disturbed: his parents would hit him and even lock him out. Sometimes he can be thoughtful and gentle; but he can fly into paroxysms of rage at nothing.

The expulsion should have been a flashing-red warning sign he was hurtling towards criminality. The education authorities should have swooped in with intensive tuition and counselling. Yes, this is expensive – but it costs a lot less than prosecuting and imprisoning Peter intermittently for the rest of his life.

The opposite happened. He was abandoned by the local authority and left to mooch around the streets untaught. This isn't unusual. The Doncaster Free Press recently decided to track down all the children who had been permanently excluded from their town's schools. They found one third were like Peter, receiving no education, left to "kick around the streets" all day. Many of the rest were "being kicked from pillar to post," attending pupil referral units that were "not fit for purpose, poorly managed [and with] horrible conditions".

So most of these kids will soon join The Untaught Three: the imprisoned children. We are jailing kids faster than ever before: the number aged 15 or under has increased by 800 per cent since 1992. Here, at last, you would think they would finally be taught something. These damaged kids are now a captive audience. They have no choice. When the gates slam behind them, some 40 per cent are functionally illiterate. So do we do the one thing guaranteed to make them less likely to mug another granny – intensively teach them to read, and how to get a job?

No. A study by the Howard League for Penal Reform visited every institution that holds teenagers, and found teaching conditions were usually dire. The teachers are paid less than those in a normal secondary school for a much harder job – so there is a high drop-out rate and low commitment. Darren at Huntercombe Young Offenders' Institution explained: "The lesson's been cancelled about once a week. The key skills and Kwik Fit courses have been cancelled as there's not enough staff." No wonder most young people leave as illiterate and unskilled as when they enter – and 80 per cent are back behind bars within two years.

The Untaught Four: asylum seeking children. Every year, 2,000 kids who have committed no crime are jailed in Britain's "immigration centres". They are forcibly seized from their homes or their classrooms – without time to gather their belongings – and locked away behind iron doors. They do not know when they will get out; some are held for more than six months. They are not allowed out to play in a park or to kick a ball. They are given virtually no schooling. Their "offence"? To come to Britain fleeing persecution.

I've written before about the racked, trauma-soaked children I have found in Yarl's Wood detention centre. In this week's New Statesman, a typical child-inmate tells her story. Fourteen-year-old Meltem Avcil tells how, when she was seven, her mother brought her here from Turkey, where they were being terrorised for being Kurdish. Meltem has been here for half her life, and says in a London accent: "I feel English through and through." After their asylum claim was declined, they were seized. Guards took them to Heathrow to force them to board a flight to Turkey. They beat Meltem's mother in front of her and said to the girl: "You know if you refuse to go on the plane, we'll put handcuffs on you and tie your feet." The pilot refused to fly such obviously distressed people, so they were taken back to the detention centre for three months – where they won their appeal. Jasmine is back at school and says now: "One day I will show everyone what I am capable of. But I will never forget Yarl's Wood."

After so long, do we really have to refight one of the oldest democratic debates of all – the right for every child to have an education? In 1880, the British parliament passed a law saying every child should go to school. More than a century later, thousands of kids like Khyra, Peter, Darren and Meltem are still waiting – in a country with no excuses.

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