Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Tax credits: another fine mess

Our sympathies go out to any family caught up in this latest tax credits fiasco:
There were calls today for the sacking of the government minister responsible for the tax credits system after an admission from the Treasury that almost £2bn had been overpaid for the second year running. According to the latest figures, £1.8bn of tax credits was overpaid in the 2004/05 financial year, forcing families to face large repayment bills for the second year running.

The number of families facing tax credit repayments has risen despite a fall in the total sum being claimed back by the government, the new figures showed. More than 1.9m claims were overpaid last year, up 120,000 from the previous year, when charities warned some families were being forced into poverty by the debt.

Yes, we remember it well. Just to make it even worse, the government admits that there is no end in sight for this particularly nasty cat-and-mouse game.

Random drug-testing

News is just out that Kent is to extend random drug-testing to pupils in all secondary schools in Kent 'following the success of a pilot scheme in the county'. Apparently:

A pilot scheme at Abbey School, in Faversham, saw pupils randomly selected and tested by taking mouth swabs.

The school said it was one factor which led to record GCSE results in 2005. Five good GCSE passes were achieved by 40% of pupils, compared with 26% in 2004 and 32% the year before.
But hang on a minute, according to the NHS the number of secondary school pupils using drugs during the past year has fallen by nearly a half:
A statistical bulletin produced by The Information Centre for health and social care found 11 per cent of more than 9,000 pupils in 305 secondary schools used drugs in 2005 compared with 19 per cent the previous year.
We wonder if that was one of the other factors?

Monday, May 29, 2006

Vive la Resistance!

Over the last couple of years, a battery of control devices has been marketed to exploit suspicion of young people, and it’s heartening to see just how skilfully these weapons are being turned around and sent straight back.

When mobile phone tracking was introduced, for instance, many young people were quick to point out the potential of offering baby-sitting services: collect everyone’s mobile for a quid a go, spend the evening at the church youth club with a rucksack full of phones and everybody’s happy.

The latest fightback is over the ‘Mosquito’ – an appalling device that emits a high-pitched sound that (allegedly) only under-20s can hear. It’s being marketed as a means of keeping young people out of public spaces,
but that’s not all it can do:
An alarm designed to clear teenaged gangs out of shopping centres has been sampled by teenagers so they can hear their phone ringing in class. It works because the noise cannot be heard by anyone over the age of 20…

Teenagers have now sampled the sound, known as Teen Buzz to those swapping it over Bluetooth and text messages, so they can hear their phone ringing without the teacher knowing.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

No place for a child

Save the Children, the Refugee Council and several others have launched a campaign to halt the detention of babies and children in immigration centres. The practice of imprisoning children, and the conditions in which they are kept, have been repeatedly hammered by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers (eg here and here).

Go see the ‘No Place for a Child’ website and find out what you can do.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Shock: most young people not delinquent

A new report slipped out from the Home Office yesterday: ‘delinquent youth groups and offending behaviour’. Using figures from the British Crime Survey, the researchers have studied the features of what they describe as ‘delinquent’ groups using the following criteria:

* Young people who spend time in groups of three or more (including themselves).
* The group spend a lot of time in public places.
* The group has existed for three months or more.
* The group has engaged in delinquent or criminal behaviour together in the last year.
* The group has at least one structural feature (a name, an area, a leader, or rules).

We’re not sure what ‘delinquent’ means if it’s used as a separate category from ‘criminal’, but that aside, if you read the papers you’ll already know that young people are generally a walking crime wave that terrorises decent, respectable citizens, right? Well, actually, no.

Using the criteria above, the researchers found that just 6% of young people belong to a ‘DYG’ (cool acronym, eh?). And if you’ve ever shrunk against the wall when a group of hoodie-clad black teenagers shuffles past, you’re wasting your energy: less than 1 in 500 ‘DYGs’ consists of black children. By far the most common offence committed by ‘DYGers’ was taking drugs (51%).

Take another look at our blog last
Wednesday and ask yourself what all the fuss over gangs of feral youths is about.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Sidelining SENs

Interesting to put the following articles side by side:

Over a quarter of children with autism have been excluded from school and nearly half have experienced bullying, according to research published by the National Autistic Society.

Mike Collins, head of education at NAS, said:”Autism is a complex disability that is widely misunderstood. Too often, children and young people with autism are placed in inappropriate schools, with teaching staff who don’t have relevant training in the disability and in an environment that doesn’t meet their needs.”


Now try this:
The Department for Education and Skills is investigating claims that schools are putting teaching assistants in charge of special educational needs provision. Senior officials have been warned that cash-strapped heads are appointing teaching assistants with no relevant experience as special educational needs co-ordinators. The officials have discussed the issue with the National Association of Special Educational Needs and asked its chief executive Lorraine Peterson to establish the number of schools involved.

Peterson said: "We already know of many schools that have high-level teaching assistants who are now doing that role. We've had correspondence from teachers who have lost their posts as co-ordinators and they have gone to a teaching assistant who does not have the experience or training.


Antisocial Woodcraft Folk

See if you can spot any possible connection between the entry below, and this story:
The Woodcraft Folk is in danger of losing all rights to camp at its largest site, after the local council applied for restrictions on activities there last week. The move by Chichester District Council is the latest stage in a long-running dispute over a site near Lurgashall, West Sussex.

After residents complained about the disruption caused by young people, the Woodcraft Folk's certificate allowing it to run long-term camps on any of its sites was revoked.

The council has now applied to ban short-term camps on the site. If approved by the secretary of state at the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Woodcraft Folk would have to apply for planning permission for each camp.
The Woodcraft Folk antisocial? Oh good grief.

Monstering youth: a job-creation scheme?

A good comment piece on the creation of the problem-youth industry, from someone on the frontline, in this week’s ‘Young People Now’:
Through my involvement in crime and disorder issues, I have witnessed young people being transformed into a social issue that can be solved by partnership working. This process has involved creating fear in the minds of citizens that young people are dangerous. Not only that, but it creates the idea that it is OK to feel fearful and to have the perception, ill-founded or not, that young people are dangerous.

Young people have been demonised by those people who want to create an enemy that they can then expend resources to combat. This helps them secure their own positions. So we have antisocial behaviour orders, acceptable behaviour contracts, CCTV: all to solve the problem of being young.

The tragedy is that these schemes have a self-fulfilling negative impact on the community, in that they heighten the perception of fear. In the end, the perception of fear is so great it can't be solved, because it's an illusion and, no matter what is done or said, people hang on to their mistaken beliefs that young people are at least a nuisance and at worst dangerous.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Compassion in education?

We’ve just been looking at the Hansard for Committee Stage of ‘curfew’ clauses 90 & 94 of the Education Bill. Despite spirited attempts at amendment by Sarah Teather (LibDem) and Edward Leigh (Con) - and some crassly stupid interventions from one or two committee members - Clause 90 went through. Clause 94 apparently didn’t even merit debate.

One thing really rankles. (Well, actually, a great deal rankles) Two-thirds of school exclusions are of pupils with Special Educational Needs. For example, 27% of autistic children get excluded from school in our
oh-so-inclusive culture.

The
Steer report into school discipline recommended that further work be done on the issue of children with SENs; consequently it only considered the exclusion of the one-third without SENs.

Now, given that the majority of excluded children have SENs, wouldn’t it be logical to at least wait until the ‘further work’ had been carried out before passing legislation that bans children from being outside, gives the police powers to hold them without charge, and creates a criminal offence for parents who, just like the school, have difficulties with their disabled child’s behaviour and struggle to keep him indoors?

This government has completely screwed up education for children with special needs, and now intends to punish everyone else for their disastrous failure.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The right to education project

A surprisingly quiet day on the news front, so we thought that we'd take the opportunity to introduce you to one of our favourite sites: the Right to Education project. This was set up by a remarkable person - Katerina Tomasevski - who used to be 'Special Rapporteur' on education to the UN Human Rights Commission.

She resigned a couple of years ago, telling the UN that they shouldn't appoint a new rapporteur until they were prepared to (a) stop doctoring critical reports and (b) start dealing with other issues, such as discrimination.

As things stand, education can be actively dangerous: in Rwanda the school curriculum was used to foment racial hatred (a Rwandan education minister was recently convicted of his part in the genocide); in some countries an educated girl stands little chance of marrying, and thus faces a destitute old age; children of nomad families are educated out of their cultural background and then left fit only to beg: they can't survive within their marginal, 'home' culture but tribal discrimination makes them unemployable elsewhere.

There's a lot of thought-provoking material on this site - go look.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The fat police

All 4 and 10-year-olds are to be weighed and measured at school:
Primary schoolchildren are to be routinely weighed and their parents told if they are obese in a controversial initiative to tackle the worsening health crisis, the Independent on Sunday can today reveal.

Ministers have decided to overrule the Children's Commissioner and their own child health officials, who fear that telling parents the test results will stigmatise some children.

Primary schools are preparing to weigh and measure the height of four- and 10-year-olds during this summer term to help prepare a national "map" of childhood obesity. Individual statistics will only be given to parents who ask for them and no extra help will be offered to children who are found to be overweight or obese.
Apparently: “Parents will be given the right to refuse permission for the child to be tested”. Will children themselves also have the right to refuse, or are they not entitled to any control over what adults do to their bodies? Perhaps we should have compulsory weigh-ins in the workplace, too.

Objections are dismissed by the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee as "absolute nonsense" and "drivel". Heartening to see MPs applying such rigorous standards of debate to expert opinion - perhaps their views on bullying would be instructive?

Thin gruel and dry bread

It’s official – education is meant to be drudgery. The head of OFSTED says:
"We need to reinforce the message that school is a 'place of work' preparing youngsters for the world of work, where a work ethic is required - not a house of fun to meet youngsters' social needs."
How very sad: given that children are hard-wired to learn, do we really need to make education such a joyless, serious business? Perhaps it gives some clue, though, as to why the UK education system is so successful in taking thousands of curious 5-year-olds every year, and turning a sizeable proportion into apathetic young people who are completely switched-off.

We can’t resist remarking that one of the main arguments used against home education is that children won’t be ‘socialised’. Well, hats off to those who prefer that their children don’t learn that life has to be a bowl of cold porridge.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The best we can do?

Various bits of news have cropped up about looked-after children in the last few days, and when added up, they make rather depressing reading.

Over 1 in 10 children moves foster placements
more than 3 times in a year. As the Commission for Social Care Inspection says:
“Waking up in a different bed, in a strange house, maybe in a different town - with complete strangers every few months - would be hard for an adult. It is particularly hard for children.

“Many children in foster care have been traumatised by difficult histories, separation and loss. They need a stable environment that will allow them to cope with these experiences and move forward.”
I guess we should at least be glad that the CPS has
revised its guidance on prosecuting ‘offences’ committed by looked-after children in care homes. Can you imagine any half-decent parent calling the police because their child had broken the broom in a fit of temper? Good grief.

The
editorial in this week’s ‘Children Now’ highlights an appalling failure in the system – what happens to looked-after children when they turn 16. Some are simply turfed out into ‘independent living’. Actually, that’s a pretty barbaric way to treat someone of 18, let alone 16. Independence isn’t something that happens suddenly – most young people have the option of coming and going for a few years, and ringing home for a bit of parental affection or a financial bail-out when the going gets tough.

The shame of it is that a lot of the obstacles wouldn’t be there if those of us who stand a better chance of being heard actually started kicking up a fuss. So send an FOI request to your local authority and ask (a) how many looked-after children were moved more than 3 times last year and (b) what arrangements are in place for supporting young people in their late teens and early twenties. And while you’re at it, ask them about their policy on
binbagging.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Trawling with dogs

Ever been falsely accused by a sniffer dog? The author of this article, Amber Marks, is researching the (in)accuracy of dogs for her PhD, and has found one study from Australia that shows the dogs gave false positives a whopping 73% of the time. We're aware of a court case in the US where one of the expert witnesses opined that you might as well flip a coin when deciding whom to search. It seems, though, that the dogs' accuracy isn't important - they merely give an excuse for a stop and search.

Some younger ARCH members have had pretty distressing experiences with the police after being wrongly identified, and it hasn’t pleased them to read the comments of the British Transport Police spokesperson:

“On being indicated by the dog, persons are stopped and searched and a record made containing their personal details and a physical description. Later, if there is a report of a robbery, the police can go through those records to see if it matches any of the persons known to have been in the area".
Terrific, eh?

The pocket stalker

We’ve mentioned the burgeoning market in tracking children’s movements before, but someone seems to be misinformed as to our views on the subject. ARCH has just received a flyer from a company marketing a device 'no bigger than a pack of chewing gum' that can tell you where your child has been! This gizmo records its own location as it is (unsuspectingly?) carried along, and the information can be downloaded later.

It seems the pretence that these gadgets are about child protection has finally been dropped, and the new marketing tactic is to go straight for the exploitation of lack of trust between parent and child, regardless of any further damage it might inflict on the relationship. How very Werner von Braun.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The society that eats its young

A good comment piece in the Grauniad from the inestimable Camilla Batmanghelidjh:
There is a fundamental problem with the way we deal with vulnerable children - whether as politicians, police or ordinary members of the public. All these interventions come from the perspective of the well-adjusted adult, needing to preserve our own sense of safety. We project our hate on to these fragile and marginalised children and we disguise our revenge as legitimate punishment. As the debate around antisocial behaviour rages on, these children are often described as menaces to society. We pride ourselves on the strategies we put in place to control them, whether that's banning them from wearing hoodies in shopping centres or placing them under Asbos that prevent them from walking down a particular street.
I guess the only thing we'd take issue with is the implication that any child who receives an asbo, or makes an adult feel 'threatened', is the product of a damaged background. In reality, some adults have an attack of the vapours if a 15-year-old blows a raspberry at them, and asbos are by no means an automatic indicator of disturbance. Some people hate children with no provocation whatsoever.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Who shut the door?

A little gem here. According to Tony Blair:
"There is a group of people who have been shut out against society's mainstream and we have not yet found a way of bringing them properly in.

"When we started Sure Start - I was always a bit sceptical that in the end that we could do this - there was an idea it would lift all the boats on a rising tide. It has not worked like that. Sure Start has been brilliant for those people who have in their own minds decided they want to participate. But the hard to reach families, the ones who are shut out of the system ... they are not going to come to places like Sure Start.

"Their problems are so multiple, and if you have one organisation dealing with one aspect of their problem, these families then end up having five or six organisations dealing with them, but no one is actually dealing with them."
Ah, so if you're 'shut out', you need remediating. As you stand on the doorstep in your dressing-gown, pathetically clutching the milk, no blame should attach to anyone who might have shut the door behind you, then?

(Note the sub-text here, too: ("now that the evaluations have shown that Sure Start hasn't worked, I'd like to make it clear that I never thought it would" )

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Intermission

We're not able to blog here during the coming week - a combination of staff holiday and being very busy on the other blog. Normal service will resume Monday week.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Steer clear of youth justice agencies

Bearing in mind the 'pre-crime' intervention agenda (something we're dealing with over on the database blog tomorrow) this must come as a bit of a blow to the Home Office and newly-cool YJB:
Young people should be kept away from criminal justice agencies as much as possible, according to a youth crime study. Findings from the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime, due to be released yesterday, suggest that the agencies responsible for bringing young offenders into the system have an influence on the amount of crime a young person commits.

Lesley McAra, co-director of the study, said: "Contact with a youth justice system at any level is fundamentally damaging to young people. We recommend minimal intervention."

Youth prisons miss education targets

More news on the (lack of) education of children in prison:
Only half of the prison service establishments that hold juvenile offenders have met YJB targets for providing education and training over the past year.

The YJB (previously the Youth Justice Board) has set the secure estate a target of providing an average of 25 hours a week of education and training for each young person in its care. This rises to 30 hours a week as more resources become available.
Last week the Home Office said eight young offender institutions (YOIs) met the target between April 2005 and March 2006, but eight did not.
Actually, we've only just noticed that the Youth Justice Board has re-branded itself. I guess it's to make them sound cool.

Hanging around

If you’re a young person, the mere fact of your existence is increasingly likely to terrify the neighbourhood:

The number of people who see teenagers hanging around the streets as a problem is increasing. British Crime Survey figures for January to December 2005 show 32 per cent of people interviewed saw the issue as a problem, compared with 29 per cent the year before.

Richard Garside, acting director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College London, said that young people hanging around is the only one of the seven indicators of antisocial behaviour used by the Home Office that is not an offence in its own right. "Young people hanging around is not in itself a problem," he said. "But we can all recognise that there are situations where young people can appear intimidating."
Well, elderly people 'hanging around' with their mates can be pretty intimidating - and yesterday we observed three women having a shouted conversation across the street! Give 'em an ASBO! And how about curfewing men after 10 pm, because lone women get frightened that the man walking behind them may be about to attack?

On the other hand, the government could stop fanning the flames of irrational fear by conflating young people who 'hang around' with those who commit crimes.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Another good idea

We’re a bit puzzled by a story on the BBC site. Apparently:
"Pupils on trips are to wear tags displaying a school ID and phone number through which their teachers can be identified and contacted automatically. Anyone who finds a lost pupil or sees one misbehaving can phone the number and input the school's ID on the tag."
It's the 'misbehaving' part of it we can't work out. How will anyone read the wristband from a distance - how big is it going to be, for heaven's sake? Should a shocked passer-by walk up to a 'misbehaving' child and say "show me your wristband!" or what? Do they ask the child to wait while they find pencil and paper? Actually, we reckon the BBC just put the misbehaviour bit in as a crowd-pleaser.



Database Masterclass

In case you haven't heard already, the Database Masterclass is underway over on our other blog. Regular posts over the next fortnight will let you build your very own pull-out-'n'-keep guide to the databases that keep track of our children.

'Instant ASBOs'

Why did this government pass a Human Rights Act, we wonder? They seem to have spent much of the time since then trying to circumvent it. The latest onslaught is against the right to a fair trial:

"Police will be given the power to impose on-the-spot antisocial behaviour orders,under new powers being planned by Tony Blair to tackle yob culture.

The Prime Minister wants to introduce instant ASBOs as a way of halting bad behaviour immediately, rather than waiting weeks before cases can be brought to court. "

We doubt the police will welcome this invitation to breach the European Convention on Human Rights.

Update: just noticed a bit about this on Tim Worstall's blog

Monday, May 01, 2006

Community hubs and all that

Yet another small village school threatened with closure, and apparently:
Carmarthenshire Council has a 10-year programme aimed at reducing surplus places and improving school buildings that could see up to 32 schools closed and replaced with new area "super schools". Other Welsh councils are also reviewing schools in the wake of spare places.
Something doesn’t quite add up here. I though the grand plan was to have schools at the centre of each community, not to mention giving ‘power’ back to communities. If that’s true, it would surely be more in keeping with government policy to keep community schools open. If the buildings are too large to make that economically viable, then sell them and buy a local house instead, rather than bussing children to an anonymous education factory miles from home.

Of course, we may have got it all wrong. It’s just possible that the whole ‘community hub’ thing is itself all about saving money…nah, that can’t be right.