Crime and a lack of learning

During the summer, the Ministry of Justice published a report called ‘A Sporting Chance: An Independent Review of Sport in Youth and Adult Prisons’ by Professor Rosie Meek. You can access the report at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/733184/a-sporting-chance-an-independent-review-sport-in-justice.pdf

I have only just caught up with reading the report, but what struck me forcibly was the following paragraph:

Those in custody are likely to have disrupted and negative experiences of learning prior to incarceration, and to lack confidence in their learning abilities. A recent data-matching exercise between the Ministry of Justice and Department for Education* showed that of the young people sentenced to custody in 2014, 90% have a previous record of persistent absence from school and almost a quarter of those sentenced to less than 12 months in custody have been permanently excluded from school. In terms of achievement, only 1% of those sentenced to less than 12 months achieved 5 or more GCSES (or equivalents) graded A* – C including English and Maths. Furthermore, illustrating the over-representation of people who have been in both the care system and the criminal justice system, 31% of those sentenced to custody for 12 months or longer, and 27% of those sentenced to custody for less than 12 months had been in the care of a local authority.

* MoJ/DfE (2016). Understanding the Educational Background of Young Offenders: Joint Experimental Statistical Report from the Ministry of Justice and Department for Education.

There is a powerful message here to schools that don’t have a credible policy for dealing with their challenging pupils, other than excluding them from school. We need to work together for the good of society. The DfE needs to ensure there is a coherent curriculum, including English and mathematics, but not necessarily the rest of the English Baccalaureate for pupils that can use these subjects to retain their place as learners. There is a space for sport and other non-classroom based subjects in the curriculum.

The message that education is for all also needs to be firmly inculcated at the start of all teacher preparation courses. Perhaps the Secretary of State might like to break with tradition and issue a message of hope and encouragement to all starting on their journey to become a teacher this September. With his background on the Education Select Committee and work with the APPG, the Secretary of State is well placed to remind new entrants, and indeed the whole profession, of the need to provide as teachers and school leaders for the needs of all our young people.

Happily, we no longer lock up more than 3,000 under-18s, as was the case a decade ago, but even a thousand is too many. It is clear that finding ways of investing in all our young people can help reduce offending and alienation. As I have said before on this blog, a start could be made by ensuring all young people taken into care do not suffer a break in their education. A place on roll of an education institution within fourteen days of being taken into care should be the requirement for all and schools should be willing to cooperate.

 

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Thank you Mr Taylor

The Ministry of Justice published an important report on Youth Justice this week. It was written by Mr Taylor. Regular readers of this blog may recall this civil servant and former head teacher when he was in charge of teacher training and espoused the view that planning ITT numbers was not useful. His views at that time were the focus of a series of blog posts.

Youth Justice, and especially the manner in which children were dealt with by the criminal justice system, was a blot on the reputation of the last Labour government. As the Taylor Report makes clear https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/review-of-the-youth-justice-system offending by young people reached a peak in 2007 after ten years of Labour governments and during the time the police were being required to meet targets to reduce offending.

In 2007, 225,000 children in England and Wales received a caution or conviction for a notifiable offence. Of these children, 106,000 were first-time entrants to the system having never before received a caution or conviction. 126,000 were prosecuted at court, and 5,800 were sentenced to custody. The average monthly under-18 custodial population for 2007 was 2,909.

  1. Since that high watermark the number of children dealt with by the youth justice system has reduced spectacularly, with consistent year-on-year falls. The number of children cautioned or convicted in 2015 was 47,000 – down 79% since 2007. Over the same period the number of children entering the youth justice system for the first time has fallen by 82%, the number prosecuted at court has reduced by 69%, and there are now around only 900 under-18s in custody.

This blog has commented before on the reduction in the size of the youth prison population when it fell below 1,000 for the first time in recent history. Now 900, is still far too many, but averages just below three per local authority at any one time.

The risk in the new proposals is that the current diffuse system run from both Westminster and by local authorities becomes a devolved system with some local authorities not large enough to handle an effective system. My guess is that then the government would step in and creates the regional structures it is now seeking in the adoption world where provision was patchy. Indeed, the Taylor report hints at this approach.

I also find the section on education rather woolly in terms of who takes control? Academisation and years of under-mining local authorities means that they no longer have the power to intervene when schools are not living up to the high standards required to help keep young people away from the path of a life of crime.

However, the recommendation about making convictions and cautions spent when resulting from actions when a person was a child, chimes with what I have been saying for many years. Too many people have their careers blighted by a single act as a young person. In this age of ever tightening restrictions it can mean the difference between working in a profession or not and even where a person can go on holiday.

The idea of Youth Panels sitting in local buildings also chimes with my thinking when a magistrate. With reducing workload children attending court have had to travel ever further and this means not only defendants, but also witnesses and victims: not a good idea.

As ever, with this government, the issue comes down to money and whether any changes will be used to pass the buck and reduce not improve services. We certainly don’t want to see a quarter of a million children a year receive a caution or conviction. Those days must never return.

 

Supreme Court one; Parliament a half

This has been a busy week, so I am catching up on various issues. The Supreme Court decision announced last week that cautions are no longer to be required to be disclosed for life makes real sense in a world where a volunteer pensioner reading to under-fives can currently be required to disclose all criminal convictions, even those acquired half a century ago.

Now I think is the time to bring the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act and the disclosure rules into harmony so that everyone can easily understand what is required and why. This would include the police and the issue of ‘soft intelligence’. It would be silly if cautions, having been removed as part of the criminal record, reappeared in enhanced disclosures as part of ‘soft intelligence’ held by police and disclosed as part of the process of ensuring unsuitable people don’t work with children or vulnerable adults.

I have awarded a half to parliament because of the work of the group of parliamentarians that appeared at almost the same time as the Supreme Court judgement saying much the same thing. Less, helpful, as those who followed my blog after the stabbing of the Leeds teacher will know, was the actions of Labour and Conservative back bench MPs ganging up together to insert a new clause in the Bill currently going through parliament requiring mandatory prison sentences for anyone convicted of two offences of carrying a bladed instrument: a knife to you, me and the MPs.

To their credit most Liberal Democrats MPs voted against this proposal, and would presumably be happy to leave judgement on sentencing to the courts within the framework of a maximum tariff set down by parliament and the guidelines from the Sentencing Council.

How little there is to distinguish Labour and Tory policies also became apparent this morning in the interview the Labour Secretary of State gave to the Sunday Times. He is reported as saying that all two-year olds should be sent to school because basic skills such as counting and holding a pen are easier to grasp at school rather than at home or with under-qualified child minders. This sends a shudder through me. I suspect most two year olds aren’t ready for fine motor skills required in holding a pen, and as a colleague emailed me:

 Knowledge is now available through a keyboard and touchscreen and increasingly important works are available online. I was delighted to find Fuster’s “Prefrontal Cortex” and Hubel’s  “Eye, Brain, and Vision” available for free download. The basis skill for writing is therefore keyboarding, not pencil printing. And mathematical comprehension is derived from language not perception, so the best way to learn number is by playing with the symbol system on a calculator first. Remember: language is a set of arbitrary symbols with which children come to school equipped. When will politicians and academics understand that all improvement is technology-based? At present all appear to be in denial.

There is certainly a debate to be had about the importance of early writing skills in a technological age where two –year olds won’t retire from the labour market until the 2080s if present trends continue. By then, pens might be restricted to use in calligraphy as an art form.  I might have been more impressed if Mr Hunt had suggested the use of turtles and coding to make them run around the floor. But, he is a historian, so perhaps he is better at looking backwards than forwards.

Knife crime: do we need mandatory sentences?

There was a debate on the Today programme this morning about mandatory prison sentences for possession of a bladed instrument – to use the formal legal terminology – carrying a knife to you and me. A mother whose son had been killed while attending a party as a teenager was advocating not just prison for using a knife, but even for just carrying one; presumably as a means of deterring young people from so doing. Simon Hughes as the Minister had a difficult job talking about a policy on mandatory sentences advocated by one of his ministerial colleagues that his party leader has publically disagreed with.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have a personal interest in knife crime for reasons I don’t need to discuss again in this post. However, as I have written in a piece for the Church Times, by coincidence published today, I am opposed to mandatory  prison sentences for carrying a knife or other bladed instrument. Unlike the mother interviewed on the Today programme, who dismissed the courts out of hand, I have more faith in the judiciary and the guidelines set down by the Sentencing Body and the higher courts, including the Supreme Court.

As well as being a victim of a knife crime, I also served for 20 years within the justice system, so I have considered this issue in my mind several times over the past few years. Draconian laws will have some effect. However, fishing is the most popular participation activity for men in this country, and it usually involves carrying a knife. Going on a summer picnic may involve carrying a knife to cut the cheese with or even the bread. Automatic prison sentences for carrying knives in these situations? There would presumably need to be the exception for those carrying on their trade, carpet fitters, chefs, and no doubt those that work in many other occupations and carry knives from place to place. So, perhaps we should just consider banning the carrying of knives by those under the age of eighteen, as we do with the sale of alcohol or cigarettes; and punish both the seller and the purchaser with prison? It would have an effect, but since even some in custody seem adept at creating bladed instruments from what is on hand in prison, it seems that where there is a will there is a way.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I prefer a different approach based upon education and earlier intervention. The Museum of Childhood ran an interesting exhibition on the subject of knife crime some time ago and their very readable booklet can be found at:  http://www.museumofchildhood.org.uk/__documents/teen_knife_crime_booklet.pdf (link no longer active – September 2018) What is clear is that social media and the internet have allowed those opposed to knife crime the opportunity to spread their messages as much as those that want punitive action.

I don’t condone violence whether with a knife, gun or a fist, but dealing with those with anti-social attitudes just by locking them up doesn’t completely solve the problem.  Compared with a decade ago, knife crime, and many other crimes, seems on a downward trend. I remain to be convinced that harsher sentences will assist in reducing knife crime still further in society.

Youth numbers in custody halve in a decade

One of the more impressive statistics of the past few years has been the reduction in the number of young people held in custody. For much of the first decade of this century the average number of children and young people held in custody (including 18 year-olds) averaged around the 3,000 mark for England and Wales. The peak year was 2002/03 when the average was 3,451. With a month to go in the 2012/13 financial year the latest figures show that the average number in custody is now down to 1,755 almost exactly half the average in the peak year a decade ago.

Even more impressive is the decline in the 10-14 age group held in custody, down from a peak of 236 in July 2005 to 54 in February 2013. The decline in the 14-17 age-groups in custody has been from a peak of 2,885 in June 2008 to 1,266 this February. These figures can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/youth-custody-data along with other useful data for those interested in the topic of youth custody. For instance, only 52 of those held in secure institutions are females compared with 1,268 young males. Some 765 of the young population are classified as ‘White’ compared with 506 from the BME and ‘other’ classifications. The reduction in the ‘White’ population in youth custody from a peak of over 2,000 has been much steeper than for the BME and ’other’ group where the peak was less than 800. There are clearly questions to be asked about the differential rate of decline in the custody population by ethnic group. One explanation may be geographic since 389 of the custody population come from London, the most racially mixed part of the country with the other urban areas outside of the North East also over-represented. One disappointing statistics is that 281 of the young people in custody were on remand. However, if the census was taken on a Friday it may be a proportion of these were on ‘warrants’ awaiting an appearance at a Saturday remand court. However, even this number is well down on the peak of almost 700 recorded in June 2008.

Hopefully, keeping these young people out of custody will also reduce the revolving door where one custodial sentence invariably leads on to another, especially for those handed down sentences of six months or less where support after custody is often insufficient if not non-existent.

Schools have a part to play in reducing exclusions since a large proportion of those in custody were as some point excluded from school. It may be no accident that youth custody rates were at their highest when secondary schools in urban areas were struggling to recruit sufficient numbers of teachers. If there is a relationship between sufficient teachers and a reduction in youth crime then the DfE would do well to ensure we don’t slide towards another teacher supply crisis in the next couple of years.