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Saving lives with a second chance

As a Finchden Manor old boy, I know it offered a compassionate answer to the problem of young offenders

Tom Robinson
Thursday September 1, 2005
The Guardian

As he returns to work this week, Tony Blair faces ever more strident calls from sections of the media to live up to his promise of being "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". It does seem to me that the government's tabloid-driven policies on the former don't seem to be having much effect on the latter.

Of course, "the causes of crime" vary according to where you happen to sit on the political spectrum. Yet whether you ascribe it to emotional or economic deprivation, poor parenting, stress, drugs, alcohol, mental illness or downright wickedness, this much is fact: across every section of society a significant minority of teenagers, mostly boys, simply go off the rails every year - causing distress and damage to other people and to themselves.

This derailment is a constant, no matter how "tough on crime" the government of the day happens to be. More punishment doesn't necessarily result in less crime - witness a juvenile jail population already at record numbers and growing. Of course wickedness exists and society has to be protected from it. Of course it's unacceptable to be mugged, assaulted or burgled.

Yet the real issue is not how harshly young offenders should be chastised, but how to stop as many of them as possible from offending again. A 1998 study by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders found that young prisoners were very likely to have suffered deprivation of all kinds, including physical and sexual abuse and mental illness.

No less an authority than Lord Woolf pointed out in these pages recently that rehabilitation is demonstrably more effective than retribution at preventing reoffending. This mild observation by the retiring lord chief justice was met with howls of tabloid derision and he was dubbed "Lord Let-em-out" by the Daily Mail for his pains.

However 50 years ago, amid consternation at a sharp postwar rise in juvenile delinquency, Fleet Street gave the notion of rehabilitation a considerably warmer reception - in the form of glowing reviews and widespread coverage for a book called Mr Lyward's Answer, by the distinguished war hero Michael Burn MC.

In it, he charted the work of pioneering educationalist George Lyward at the Finchden Manor community in Kent, where youths already on a fast track for Borstal or Broadmoor were given a second chance - indeed, a second childhood - as an alternative to committal. The regime offered no fixed routine other than four meals a day, cooked by the boys themselves, no locks on the doors, no regulations and no formal therapy.

As Burn noted, Lyward's success rates with reoffending were so much better than conventional approved schools or mental institutions that local authorities trampled each other in the rush to get places at Finchden for teenage tearaways in their care. In the long-term, a few years there was so much cheaper than locking them up for the rest of their adult lives.

As a suicidal 16-year-old, I was referred there myself a decade after Burn's book came out, and the experience saved my life - like the lives of many others. Well-known Finchden old boys have included actor James Robertson Justice, blues legend Alexis Korner and the Channel 4 art critic and author Matthew Collings.

The severity of the problems Lyward grappled with, and the fact that not every story had a happy ending, can be judged by the fact that three of the boys Matt and I knew there in the late 60s are now serving prison sentences for murder. There was no silver bullet, no simplistic tabloid-friendly cure-all for issues of mental illness or sheer criminality.

None the less, the community provided a safe respite for all of us and a better future for many. This weekend Michael Burn, now aged 93, will return to Lyward's birthplace in Clapham, south London, to address a mass reunion of old boys 75 years after the community was founded.

Lyward himself is long dead and Finchden Manor long closed, yet its legacy lives on. Not only in Burn's book - now available free on the internet through one of the many Finchden websites - but more importantly in the grey- and white-haired men who'll be there this Sunday with their families, friends and grandchildren. A living testimony to Lyward's compassionate answer to the problem of young offenders in a bygone age.

· Tom Robinson is a songwriter and broadcaster

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