Did Glasgow cut youth crime by ending suspensions and expulsions? Part 2

March 9, 2022

It has recently been claimed that Glasgow, by following a policy of reducing suspensions, or possibly expulsions, from schools, has cut youth crime dramatically. I intend to explore this over 3 posts. In my last post, I put the changes in the wider context, observing that youth crime fell by proportionately more in Scotland as a whole than it did in Glasgow, and that similar changes appear to have happened in England and Wales. Here I will look at how the numbers involved in changes in school suspensions and exclusions don’t seem to fit the numbers involved in changes in crime data.

To begin with, an extract from my previous post to remind you about the stories I’m addressing, and a note about my use of terminology.

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.

One of the main problems with confusing expulsion and suspension in one’s analysis of exclusions is that while expulsion might have a dramatic effect on a pupil’s life, suspensions are not obviously that big a deal. This is critical here. Suspensions in Scotland usually last for a day or two, and rarely more than a week.

As in similar debates in England, it is unclear how these relatively small amounts of time out of school will give a great opportunity for criminality. In order to justify the claim that a day or two out of school due to a suspension can have a drastic effect on criminality, anti-exclusions campaigners often seem to assume that a suspended pupils can be expected to be wandering the streets getting into trouble that they wouldn’t have otherwise become involved in. This is an assumption that is not usually accompanied by any attempt to justify it. A small study in the 90s (too small and old to be generalised, but enough to give us reason to question assumptions) found the following about a sample of 56 children with considerable experience of suspension or permanent exclusion:

Self-report interview questions reveal that whilst forty of the young people had offended, 90% (36) reported that the onset of their offending commenced prior to their first exclusion. Moreover, fifty (89.2% of the total number of young people in the sample), stated that they were no more likely to offend subsequent to being excluded and thirty one (55.4%) stated that they were less likely to offend during their exclusion period.

It is often the case that correlation does not equal causation; it is entirely possible for both suspensions and youth crime referrals to fall at the same time without one causing the other. When we consider how little time out of school is a result of suspensions (compared with, say, school holidays and absences) there is every reason to doubt that suspensions are the main driver of youth crime.

I would even speculate that in order to maintain the plausibility of the idea that cutting suspensions cut youth crime, the extent to which youth crime has apparently reduced in Scotland has been underplayed by these stories about Glasgow. As noted last time, in Glasgow, the proportionate decrease in offence referrals was not as great as for Scotland as a whole. Looking at Glasgow underplays the extent of the change in youth crime in Scotland, and that’s not the only way it is being underplayed. Both versions of the Glasgow story describe youth crime halving in Glasgow between 2010 and 2015. Actually, the number of offense referrals in Glasgow went down from 3760 in 2009/10 to 1423 in 2014/15. I think the recording period starts on April 1st so perhaps the relevant change is from 2556 in 2010/11 to 994 in 2015/16. Either way, the reduction is more dramatic than merely halving offences. The appeal of a simple story about a city reducing “exclusions” and achieving a reduction in youth crime of 50% might be that it just seems more believable than what the data actually shows: an entire nation reducing suspensions and achieving a reduction in offence referrals of over 80%. The apparent change in Scotland’s youth crime is so large that the claim that it might have been caused by reducing suspensions would be hard to believe even if we didn’t know similar changes in youth crime happened in England and Wales without the same policy on suspensions.

It becomes even harder to believe if we directly compare how many fewer suspensions and how many fewer offence referrals there were. If we measure from the peak of suspensions in Scotland (2006/7) to the last pre-Covid figure 2018/19, the number of suspensions has gone from 44536 to 14987, a fall of 29549. Over the same period, offence referrals fell from 34385 to 7763, a fall of 26622. For Glasgow, the fall in suspensions in that period is 6590 and the fall in offence referrals was 4185. If the reduction in suspensions had caused the reduction in referrals in Glasgow, it would be the case that for every 5 suspensions that were stopped, 3 fewer offences would be referred. And if the same logic was applied to the whole of Scotland, for every 10 suspensions that were stopped, 9 fewer offences would be referred. When you consider that offence referrals are the cases where perpetrators have been identified and reported to the courts, this is likely to mean the actual number of offences being prevented is much greater than that. Does anyone believe that suspended pupils are such prolific (or incompetent) criminals that these figures could make sense? That for every 10 suspensions, Scottish pupils are not just committing 9 crimes, but being caught too? The problem here is not that reduced suspensions in Scotland haven’t coincided with a fall in offence referrals, but that the scale of the fall is way beyond what even the most ardent opponent of suspensions can reasonably claim could be caused by the fall in suspensions.

It would be convenient if I could tell you what did cause the change in offence referrals, but I’m not aware of any simple answer, particularly knowing that youth crime fell dramatically in England and Wales too. However, any credible explanation of the change in referrals will need to involve more than just the issue of suspensions. Once we have noted that there must be reasons for the change in offense referrals, other than suspensions, then there is no reason to assume that reducing suspensions had any particular effect on offence referrals. Reducing suspensions might be the policy that’s in fashion, but it simply doesn’t explain what happened in Scotland.


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