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Did Glasgow cut youth crime by ending suspensions and expulsions? Part 1

March 5, 2022

It has recently been claimed that Glasgow has, by following a policy of reducing suspensions, or possibly expulsions from schools, cut youth crime dramatically. I intend to explore this over 3 posts. Here I will look at how the claims ignore the wider context.

A BBC report last October gave credence to the idea that it is possible to prevent crime by reducing exclusions. The following was claimed about Glasgow:

Ms McKenna’s [Glasgow’s Director of Education] approach fitted with the work and ethos of Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit (VRU), which was started just before she took up her post. It aims to treat crime as a public health issue and look at root causes of the problem.

There has been an 88% reduction in school exclusions in the past 10 years, at the same time there has been a 50% reduction in youth crime.

Several English councils and Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, have sent representatives to learn from Ms McKenna how the approach to exclusions could be having a positive impact on reducing violence.

In a recent video made by The Economist, even more definite claims were made about Glasgow.

One city in Britain has done something about reducing exclusions. This is Saint Roch’s school in Glasgow. 15 years ago, it excluded around 300 pupils a year….

But then a new policy was implemented with the agreement of the headmaster. And in recent years only a handful of students have been excluded…

“Exclusions for us are very  much an absolute last resort. And the reason for that is because  we don’t think that exclusions solve any problems.”

The school has invested in training  its teachers to better understand and support students  displaying behavioural issues.

“We have a real need to find out what is lying behind poor behaviour. And if we can understand what is  leading to that, then we can tackle the root cause rather than the  symptom of the bad behaviour in school. You can kind of see some of the  kids who come in the morning from challenging  backgrounds or kids who have low confidence and low self-esteem  may struggle early in the morning”

This approach was implemented systematically across Glasgow’s schools in 2010. The results for children of all  ethnic backgrounds have been positive. Between 2010 and 2015, youth crime in the city fell by 50%.

“I don’t have any evidence to say,  well, because you’ve reduced exclusions, that’s what’s  happened with youth crime. But they must be linked, if we have  more young people getting more qualifications, able to make more  positive choices in their lives able to be the next generation  of positive families then everybody wins, don’t they?”

If you look at the whole of these stories you’d see they include one of the most common faults in stories about exclusions: a failure to distinguish between expelling a pupil from school permanently (“permanent exclusion” in England, “removal from roll” in Scotland), and removing a pupil from school for a short period of time (now “suspension” in England, previously “fixed term exclusions”; “temporary exclusion” in Scotland). This is an ongoing problem with reporting and campaigning on exclusions, with claims about the likely harms from exclusion consistently based on the serious nature of expulsions, but claims about the frequency of exclusions, and the trend in exclusions over time, often being based on suspensions. In the above stories, we see figures for exclusions that appear to be about suspensions, yet If you look at the full stories there are a number of points about expulsions. I will be very careful to look at both and use the words “expulsion” and “suspension” for clarity.

When I looked into the data about Glasgow, I was able to confirm that there has been a dramatic reduction in suspensions and a dramatic reduction in offence referrals to the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration, the only measure of youth crime that is easy to find. The claim that youth crime halved turns out to be an apparent understatement about Glasgow. I will look at possible reasons for underplaying the fall in my next blogpost. Here I will argue that, in the focus on Glasgow, there is a complete lack of context. Despite The Economist’s claim that “one city in Britain has acted”, Glasgow is in line with the rest of Scotland with its policy on expulsions and suspensions and is not an outlier for having had a fall in youth crime. The policy of reducing suspensions and expulsions is Scotland-wide. The fall in youth crime is, if anything, even more dramatic for Scotland as a whole than for Glasgow.

For some reason in recent years, expulsion and suspension figures in Scotland appear to be published only every other year, but assuming schools and LAs don’t change their practices in the off years, the policy of reducing suspensions is exceptionally clear. The bar chart below shows the number of suspensions per thousand of the school population.

(Figures for Scotland taken from the first spreadsheet here and for Glasgow I have calculated them from same spreadsheet and also the school census here). I think Glasgow’s figures may include expulsions as well as suspensions, but these should have little effect on the data. As can be seen, suspensions were massively reduced in Scotland, but in Glasgow suspensions fell particularly sharply.

There was a reduction in youth crime at the same time. In Scotland, crimes committed by young people are referred to the SCRA (Scotland’s Children’s Reporter Administration) and Glasgow and Scotland can be found here (although you will have to click to get numbers per 1000) and are displayed like this.

As can be seen from the first bar chart, Scotland as a whole, and Glasgow in particular, reduced suspensions dramatically. As we can see from the second bar chart, they also had dramatically reduced offence referrals at the same time. However, we can also see that while Glasgow’s suspensions moved from much higher than average to below average for Scotland, its rate of youth crime referrals, despite being much reduced, not only remains much higher than Scotland as a whole, but showed no signs of becoming less of an outlier. If we look at Glasgow’s figures relative to the whole of Scotland, suspensions and offence referrals are telling a different story (I won’t put them on the same axes, as we don’t have suspension figures for every year).

If anything, Glasgow’s referral rate has grown relative to Scotland’s as a whole. In fact, by Scottish standards, Glasgow seems to be a poor choice for an exemplar of reducing youth crime. Instead of making the claim that youth crime in Glasgow halved (according to the BBC this was in the last ten years; according to the Economist it was in the years 2010 to 2015) one could instead observe that (over either period), offence referrals in Glasgow went from about one and a half times the national average, to twice the national average. This is not evidence that lowering suspensions doesn’t reduce crime, but it does highlight that if it does, Scotland as a whole would be a better example of this effect than Glasgow alone.

If we consider Scotland as a whole, we can acknowledge that crime fell after (or at the same time as) suspensions fell. It is the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy to believe that because one thing happened after another, then the first even caused the second. Two trends can coincide by chance. Nobody should assume without a good causal explanation that one thing caused another, and even then it should be noted that the role of the other factors, or chance, might have played in this data. In my next blog post I will look at the problem with causal explanations for the link between the changes in suspensions and offence referrals. Here though, I will point out the biggest single reason for thinking that Scotland’s (or Glasgow’s) fall in youth crime is not a result of its policy on youth crime: it happened in England and Wales too.

The following graphs are from England and Wale’s Youth Justice Statistics 2019/20 (the following year’s data have been published last month but were not available at time of writing). The offence referral system is not directly comparable to the measures of crimes used in England and Wales, so I’m just going to give you the first 4 graphs that seemed relevant.

As these are different types of data I won’t attempt to comment on whether this is objectively a greater fall in youth crime than in Scotland, I will simply claim that it is equally dramatic. Looking at older data indicates that youth crime in England and Wales peaked around the same time as in Scotland. It is actually remarkable how similar the trends in youth crime in Scotland are in England and Wales, when you consider the completely different criminal justice system.

If this was a blog abut crime rather than education, I might look into whether this change was seen in other countries, or try to work out the causes. However, as this is a blog about education, I will simply note that the policy regarding suspensions in Scotland cannot be given credit for a change that appears to have happened in England and Wales too. If the fall in youth crime in Scotland (or Glasgow) was a result of Scotland (or Glasgow’s) policy of reducing suspensions, why did it happen in England and Wales too?

Part 2 is now available here.

4 comments

  1. It is a reasonable claim that keeping criminally-inclined children in school reduces the crime rate, assuming that their offences in school no longer count in the crime figures. I don’t think you are going to be able to do this analysis fully without looking more into the criminology, though, to answer just this sort of question. Very interesting, look forward to part two, thanks!


    • I don’t think it is a reasonable claim at all. Suspensions are not long periods of time (particularly when you consider crimes could also be committed when truanting, after or before school, at weekends and during the holidays). It’s hard to see why they would be so decisive.


  2. […] Teaching in British schools « Did Glasgow cut youth crime by ending suspensions and expulsions? Part 1 […]


  3. […] youth crime dramatically. I am exploring this in a series of 3 posts of which this is the last. In my first post, I put the changes in the wider context, observing that, compared with Glasgow, youth crime fell by […]



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