The Oldie (May 2014) - Breaking the cycle

Robbie is 15 and growing into a thoughtful young man. We were talking about the solar system, one of many subjects about which he is infinitely more knowledgeable than I am, when he said, “If there wasn’t a moon, wolves would have nothing at howl at.” You’re absolutely right, Robbie, I said. What an interesting mind you’ve got.

Actually I wanted to dance a jig to celebrate the uplifting quality of his imagination, and perhaps I should have done. I was doing Science with him at the special school he attends, and impromptu dancing – and singing – by staff is a tactic that relaxes these boys and can hook them into a subject they think is beyond them. When they first come into the school they often kick walls, doors and people. They are foul mouthed and inclined to bunk lessons. Or, as Robbie did a few years ago, they bunk all of them. He didn’t cause any trouble, he just didn’t go into classrooms because the prospect of trying to learn bewildered and frightened him, and he was certain that he would fail as he had at other schools.

That’s why it’s such a pleasure to watch him move calmly from lesson to lesson now, and to know that once through each door he no longer lies on the floor but sits down and gets on with his work. He smiles, he initiates conversations with visitors – especially pretty young women - and, when he leaves us, he won’t become NEET (not in education, employment or training) like so many of his rejected, neglected and abused contemporaries in underprivileged areas of Britain. Instead he will go to college as most of the school’s former students do. The rest get apprenticeships or jobs.

I discovered Ian Mikardo High School five years ago when I interviewed the Head Teacher, Claire Lillis, for The Times. She was then seven years into creating an educational way of supporting 10 to 16-year-olds in East London. She’d been a troubled young person herself, was briefly a banker, then a teacher, and a senior manager in a secure unit for children. Realising that all the prison did was return children to the environment in which their difficulties had hatched, she looked for a school that would enable her to break the cycle of dysfunction that traps vulnerable young people in crime and unemployment.

Ian Mikardo was in special measures, she was the fourth head in nine months, and former students were adept at finding their way to prison. The school has since had two outstanding citations from Ofsted and, hand on heart, we don’t know of a former student who is inside. I say “we” because I work there now, evaluating the successes, writing the website, and, in a voluntary capacity, running the school’s charity. You might think that it’s because I’m a former News International hack that I find it a nurturing and uplifting place to be (and that might have something to do with it) but so does just about everyone else who walks through the doors.

How does it work? Well, it’s small: up to 40 boys and around 25 staff from diverse backgrounds, including a good handful who have experienced at first-hand what the boys are going through. There are no more than eight in a class, teachers are endlessly flexible – they have to be – and the curriculum focuses on developing the skills the boys will need to live responsible, independent lives. So literacy and numeracy are key, but so is having the confidence to look an adult in the eye and have a conversation without swearing. Or making bacon sandwiches to sell to staff. Or riding a bike safely. Or playing football with another school without fighting. Or eating in a restaurant using cutlery. Or not getting your girlfriend pregnant until you’ve got a job and some stability in your life. Or sharing a joke. All of that comes into the school day, and every second is used to develop effective communication skills as well as knowledge.

It’s done largely by example. We work around a psychotherapeutic framework in which staff model sound, healthy and respectful relationships. It can be hard not to return a barrel of abuse to a boy who is intent on miring you in the stuff, but it wouldn’t help so we don’t do it, and unlike most schools for young people with behavioural problems, we don’t physically restrain them either. We let them act out their frustrations because that way we know what we’re working with, and once they’ve got over the shock of being with adults who can see the kind, likeable boy beneath the aggression, bravado and hurt, then slowly they learn to mirror back the good stuff, and the abuse dies down.

There are no rewards or sanctions – largely because they don’t have a positive effect on our boys -and we treat each one as an individual. So while there is a timetable full of activities for the five year groups, some boys have personalised timetables. We support their families, with debt, housing (four have been evicted thanks to the government’s benefit “reforms”), health and building up their independence and skills so that they can get jobs too.

Is it mad? Most of the time. Is it fun? Often. Is there lots of laughter? Bucketloads. On Jubilee Day the Head dressed as a corgi and the staff did themed lessons; one miserable day in December, we all wore onesies and did circus tricks and magic. There is a dog, a splendid hound called McFlurry who himself had a troubled background that had led to extreme misbehaviour and six homes before the Head put him to work soothing anxious and agitated boys and showing them what it’s like to be in a relationship where you’re not being judged.

One of my favourite moments involved a picture of Joe Cole of England football fame, which had regrettably slipped under a radiator cover. Robbie was distraught, certain that Mr Cole was to meet an untimely and very hot end. The premises manager was summoned from the school grounds where he was walking McFlurry, unscrewed the cover and rescued the unfortunate footballer. Downstairs a teacher was asking a small boy with a high pitched voice to stop shouting “Boobies!” and a new student who, six months earlier had been so withdrawn that he couldn’t straighten his body, was striding round the lobby belting out a cheerful song. Mr Gove may like to know that it is possible to inspire traumatised young people to work towards a positive future, and that Latin doesn’t come into it at all.

The fee for this piece is being paid to Friends of Ian Mikardo High School (registered charity 1123143), 60 William Guy Gardens, Talwin Street, Bromley by Bow, London E3 3LF.