A few months ago a female colleague at the Youth Offending Service, Chrissy, asked me to sit in with her and a young male offender of seventeen. She hoped I could be a positive male role model in getting him to do something constructive with his time rather than burgle his neighbours.
"Hi I'm Winston. You must be Noel. Nice to meet you."
Chrissy then asked him what had he been doing since she last saw him several weeks ago.
"I've been looking for jobs but I'm not having any luck."
Having read his file and knowing he was completely illiterate I deduced that luck wasn't really the issue here. I felt that the cart wasn't so much before the horse as completely without one. Anyway, how do you look for work when you can't read? I think Noel was telling us what he thought we might want to hear.
"Noel, in the interests of helping you in the long run, I am going to be blunt with you. There is no point in you seeking work until you learn to read. There's not a job out there these days that will not require you to be literate. To even lug rubble around a building site requires you to do a health and safety course which you will need to be able to read to pass."
"I'll be fine. I'm not doing any courses or college. I hate classrooms and teachers. I'll get work eventually. My Uncle says he has six weeks cash in hand work with him as a gardening assistant in a few months."
"Noel, that's not a secure job its some black market work. There's no future in that for you. If its an issue of being embarrassed in a group we can arrange one to one literacy lessons for you."
"Am not interested. I'll get a job in the end my way. I don't want to talk about this any longer. Are we nearly finished here I've got to be off. I've got stuff to do."
Chrissy arranged his next appointment and dismissed him.
"I've given up with him. He's been in and out of here for a few years now for various offences and despite arranging courses for him and even one to one tuition he just wont engage. He'll turn up for meetings here to prevent being breached, but he refuses to do anything constructive. I've even had work experience arranged for him and they let him go due to turning up late all the time."
We both head back to our respective offices utterly frustrated. Later on I have a discussion with another Youth Offending Officer who informs me that as part of their orders many Young Offenders are required to engage in education, but that some officers wont breach them for failing to attend a course in that they believe it is against their human rights to coerce them in to education. It's nice to know that educated middle class left wing idealists are defending the rights of disadvantaged young people to remain ignorant and disempowered.
For those of you who are interested I've been interviewed here by the Manchester Evening News