Herald Article: Turning Lives Around

Posted: 06 April 2010, in Sector News

Elizabeth Kibble was a Paisley buddy.

A rich one, thanks to the family textile business. A rich one with a social conscience as her will revealed.

Her money was to be used, she decreed, to “found and endow in Paisley an Institution for the purpose of reclaiming youthful offenders against the laws”. That vision was duly realised when Kibble school was set up 150 years ago, but almost torpedoed when Strathclyde Region, the contemporary source of its funding, disappeared in the mid-nineties. Instead Kibble re-invented itself as a social enterprise whose sprawling campus contains a range of services virtually unique in the UK.

Of Scotland’s local authorities, 26 use Kibble as the final safety net for young boys between the ages of 12 and 18; boys whom mainstream provision has either given up on, or whose offending behaviour makes them unsuitable for any other provision. In some senses Kibble is a last resort, yet it is also at the cutting edge of dealing with often violent, disturbed young people whose backgrounds are dysfunctional and chaotic. The kind of hinterland from which Jon Venables and Robert Thomson emerged. These domestic traumas may fuel anger, or hopelessness or both. They may result in highly troubled children capable of causing serious harm to others, or to themselves. Or both. It is not a task for the faint-hearted. Yet spend any time in this remarkable establishment and you meet staff members who are not just signed up to Kibble’s relentless brand of positivity but self evidently getting huge satisfaction from trying to turn lives around. Graham Bell, its chief executive, is, says one of his management team, that rare species of educationalist who also understands the commercial imperatives of keeping a very expensive show on the road.

Part of the campus is devoted to operations which train boys in skills as various as car maintenance,

landscaping, IT and catering and sells on their services. They’re about to set up similar opportunities for older unemployed young men in tandem with local authority and enterprise ventures. “We have to sweat all of our assets,” says Jim Mullan who manages training and employment initiatives under the KibbleWorks umbrella. Inside the warehouse he runs is a canteen which daily feeds all staff and students and which he hopes can morph into an evening drop in centre for “old boys” and other kids in need of support.

Mr Bell tells you that while the organisation puts a high premium on training, and cherry picks the best of proven global methodologies, the Kibble mantra is that there is nothing as powerful as good relationships.

These are not easily built with youngsters who will have bounced around all kinds of unsuccessful interventions, with a track record of failed fostering placements as well as their adventures in crime. Part of the reason the campus has its own specialist fostering unit.

But, as Mr Bell points out, given the high proportion of violent offenders at Kibble, some guilty of sexual offending, there is a huge need to build in the stability and continuity their lives have lacked, while trying to foster a brand of self-confidence stripped of arrogance and bravado.

His executive director, David Baird, suggests that as a result of their earlier experiences with highly problematic families, some children are actually better off in care where they might encounter stability and reliable adult role models for the first time. But despite the similarities of background, the Kibble boys are still individuals with individual difficulties.

“We just have to try and get cleverer about assessing young people with very troubled backgrounds and develop a process which looks at needs as well as deeds,” he suggests. “A programme which taps into strengths and possibilities. We need to give these boys a reason to want to move on.”

Moving on within Kibble means a number of different things. It means progressing from high levels of security to carefully monitored freedoms. It means everyone, regardless of age or ability, goes to school on campus. Many of the boys will have been subject to serial exclusions. That’s not an option here.

Then again the teacher-student ratio is often as small as one to four. And in addition to the core curriculum on offer, Joan Mackenzie, who runs the educational set up, is evangelical about the use of the expressive arts in developing personalities as well as skills. Half of the new two-unit education centre currently under construction will be devoted to areas like music and drama. The Kibble summer show and Christmas panto is already a hot ticket.

Nevertheless with many of the youngsters who come through their doors there is a substantial mountain to climb. Claire McCartney’s responsibility managing the social education team includes some boys with an extremely unsavoury track record of sexual abuse. They are looked after in two purpose-built units which have all the outward appearances of a home with bedrooms, dining and recreational areas.

But the level of supervision, understandably, is rigorous, and everyone will be subject to specialised services designed to identify and unpick the triggers for their behaviour and come up with a treatment plan, the ultimate goal of which will be a safe return to the community. All the key indicators will be carefully assessed, says Claire, from family background and problems to legal and educational histories. This is not a game where you can afford to get it wrong.

The boys who come to Kibble will be subject to intense scrutiny and challenged with new levels of expectation. But they will also be in a highly protective environment where the ethos is grounded in eternal optimism and the facilities are enviable. Within the grounds are a basketball court, a skate park, and a football pitch.

Now Kibble finds itself at another crossroads with plans under way which would allow local authorities to commission services including programmes for young offenders –with centrally funded grants disappearing.

Kibble is probably the Rolls Royce in the field, and its running costs reflect that. Impressively, 50 countries have sent representatives to look on and learn. It has given itself three years to convince its client base, old and new, that Elisabeth Kibble’s vision has resulted in Paisley housing Scotland’s premier provider of services for young men posing risk, and at risk.



Inside the safe centre

They don’t call it a secure unit. The sign on the wall says “Safe Centre”, and it’s been in business since the summer of 2007.

Running it is John Harte who tells you that the 18 boys inside are “the cream of the crop”, by which he means those deemed most dangerous and at risk by the people who have referred them to Kibble.

Twenty years ago, he says, such a unit would have been full of “relatively stable car thieves.” Now all of his charges exhibit one kind of personality disorder or another, most of them already taken out of other institutions and often deemed uncontrollable. Sometimes they still are; one stabbed a member of staff with his fork. One, rated unfit to plead, had attacked his social worker with a break knife.

The Safe Centre can be a dangerous place to work. “The problem is that most of them really don’t care about the consequences of their actions.”

I speak to one pleasant lad in his art class and later learn that he is prone to bouts of violence not unconnected to watching his mother kidnapped by drug dealers when he was five.

Despite the most stringent precautions and customised personal quarters one young boy managed to commit suicide last year. An unwelcome shock to Harte and his staff.

“We have to get the assessment right. So many of them have come through traumatic backgrounds and failures that they see no reason to bother with anything new on offer. Even getting them to try new food is a struggle.” But struggle on they do, offering rewards like TV and CD players in the spartan rooms in return for a better risk assessment profile.

The building has four separate areas allowing any one of them to be shut off from the rest in case of trouble, and constant CCTV monitoring covers all areas. Yet alongside this are opportunities most of these youngsters will never have been offered. The day I was inside there was the art class in full swing, and down the corridor a music teacher had four young aspiring guitarists under his spell. There is the swimming pool John Harte insisted on, for therapeutic as well as recreational reasons.

The boys in this unit are uniformly damaged, sometimes dangerous. But, perhaps for the first time, they are living, working and learning in an institution which refuses to give up on them.