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Bad Boyz

During the mid-1990s reporter Nick Ryan spent two weeks visiting and living among the staff and students of reform school, Warleigh Manor, near Bath in England.



A shaven-headed burglar and self-confessed ram raider. An anaemic 14-year-old born to smackheads, praying to a willow called the 'Death Tree'. The gypsy child, destroying a bedroom in front of my eyes, playing out the memory of the beatings and bestiality visited upon him by his father.

These are some of the children held at Warleigh Manor, a crumbling hall in a picturesque, secluded valley near Bath. Staff at Warleigh marshall a unique combination of teaching therapies, incentives and near-unending patience in their treatment of some of the country's most disturbed and violent youngsters.

Despite a lack of resources, the school holds an excellent record of achievement. It was in this place that my ear was slashed during a riot, 75 windows were smashed, staff members attacked, and I witnessed "settling time", the bedtime period when nightmares return and the violence begins. But I was also touched by the sincerity of some of the kids, their thoughts and fears. Many had heart-rending stories.

I visited Warleigh twice in 1995, and spent a total of eight days at the school, living amongst the children and staff. I spoke at length with the care workers and the head Les Alderman, a pugnacious geordie who had once played for Newcastle United.

I saw the kids' constant bravado, and the jokes about homosexuality and parentage. I sat with staff at 3am, drinking beer and sharing dark jokes about the kids - often the only way to keep sane. Driving past Bath police station, for example, the chief care worker (who had once taught English to Saudi royals) joked: "And here we have our very own executive suite, don't we boys?"

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They have come to be known as the 'Savage Generation'. Twelve year olds convicted of rape; gangs of 10-year-olds mugging elderly women; a 14-year-old running a school protection racket.

The press speaks of a growing hardcore of children gone wild, responsible for a massive 50 percent increase in violent crime amongst the 10-13 age group. One retiring magistrate has labelled the trend "unbelievable, like something out of a horror film".

Dealing with the hard edge of this uneasy mix of myth, fear and outrage is Warleigh Manor, a unique 'last chance' reform school and rare alternative to a secure unit (child prison). Home to delinquent (male) rapists, muggers, burglars and other offenders, Warleigh nestles in a tiny valley just outside Bath. Shrouded by woods and overlooking a meandering river, it resembles nothing more than a genteel stately home - until you walk through the huge front doors.

"I want some fucking silence!" screams a gruff, powerfully-built teacher. Three slouching youths in baseball caps promptly tell him to "Fuck off!" and carry on arguing. A young skinhead runs out of the front doors and off down the road, pursued by a carer. Somewhere a window breaks and a little kid wanders by, calling me a "cunt".

This was just a short introduction to the first of two visits to Warleigh. During this time, I had my ear slashed and witnessed a riot in which 75 windows were smashed, and staff were pelted with bricks and parts of the school battlements.

Yet for all its seeming chaos, Warleigh turns around problem kids with astonishing success. It has a GCSE pass rate to rival or better that of many schools in Avon and prides itself on the number of its pupils who go on to college.

The kids are referred by their local education authority or social services, at an annual cost exceeding 37,000 - greater than sending a child to Eton or Harrow. However, many would otherwise be out on the streets or in secure units, at perhaps a greater cost to society.

The headmaster Les Alderman, a pugnacious geordie, smooths his bedraggled hair and admits: "It's a lot of hardwork and you've got to be committed to these kids 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. After all, these are the most difficult kids."

An ex-Newcastle United professional footballer, Alderman has even gone into secure units to rescue children, as he sees it, from public ignorance that pushes for greater custodial powers. "Whacking these kids and locking them up doesn't make me feel better," he says.

Alderman was himself brought up in a children's home, before qualifying as a secondary school teacher. He later became involved in special needs education and worked in an approved school: "And I couldn't believe what I was seeing. This was back in the Dark Ages, around 1965. And we haven't moved on from there. We've only refined the system, not bettered it. Kids are being contained, not treated."

Harnessing a combination of therapy and an 'open doors' policy (there are no bars on the windows, and to a limited extent kids still have contact with the outside world) Warleigh's philosophy is to help pupils tackle their own problems. Pocket money is docked for violent behaviour and damage to the building (which is frequent) and proves an ingenious way of controlling the children's rebellious natures. "They tend to leave most of the expensive stuff," jokes one of the teachers.

However, the 41 special needs staff at Warleigh have no legal jurisdiction to prevent a child running away, and Alderman will sometimes have to provide them with travel cards and living expenses if they insist on leaving. He takes this all in his stride: "There are kids here who have emotional problems that put them in such pain today, that they need to be contained - both for their sake and society's.".

Many of the pupils are suffering from physical, sexual and emotional abuse and are often very angry. This anger may turn into violence and the majority have been expelled from other schools (part of a massively growing trend which Alderman calls "catastrophic").

Children I met, talked and ate with, as young as 11, had committed muggings, burglaries and even attempted murder. One 13 stone 13-year-old even threw at knife at my head - after knocking out a teacher - and I witnessed a huge riot after some of the older boys attacked the block housing the younger kids. Even the care staff were shaken by the ferocity of this attack, as they were showered with broken glass and pelted with bricks. I also watched in amazement as a 14-year-old gypsy boy, a victim of bestiality, destroyed a room before my eyes.

Unable to cope with the pain of their traumas, many Warleigh pupils like this one have trouble with memories brought on by the (often violent) "Settling Time". They simply can't cope with this bedtime period, when the memories of childhood abuse flood back. They often snap.

"The behaviours that my kids display are only symptoms of the damage that has been caused to them," says Alderman. "The behaviours that so many people (the public at large) complain about are pathological and therefore eminently treatable."

With an undercurrent of frustration, he adds: "However, the main factor is a lack of good enough parenting that goes right across social boundaries. We're talking about an age-old problem with a well-known solution."

There is an undercurrent of dark humour shared by many of the staff, who become experts in banter and street jive. One even joked to his charges as they drove past Bath police station that "we have our very own executive suite there." Yet as they sip beers after the night shift, there seems a sense of depression and hopelessness about the situation. Authority budgets are shrinking and politicians are keen to follow the American-style Boot Camp approach.

Les Alderman reflects ruefully before I leave: "On the streets of St Petersburg (where he runs a charity for streetkids), I see absolutely the same kids, the same faces, the same behaviours as here. In fact, the only place I've come across where I see kids being locked up more often than they are here is in Russia."

This article was commissioned for GQ and originally appeared in 'Dont Tell It' magazine © Dec/Jan 1996/97

 




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