Did Glasgow cut youth crime by ending suspensions and expulsions? Part 3

March 12, 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 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 proportionately more in Scotland as a whole, and that similar changes appear to have happened in England and Wales. In my second post, I looked at how the change in the number of suspensions seemed too small to account for the change in the number of offences. Here I will consider a couple of other points.

  1. Whether changes in expulsions might explain the fall in crime.
  2. Whether there’s a reason these stories focus on Glasgow, not the whole of Scotland.

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 can see that 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.

As stated above, there is often confusion between suspensions and expulsions, because the word “exclusion” has been used to refer to both. This has often allowed campaigners against expulsions in England to use claims that are actually about suspensions to refer to both. As I noted before, the two media reports mentioning Glasgow I have been looking at, also mention expulsions, even though the substantial claims appear to be about suspensions. As it is unclear how a change in suspensions could have resulted in the fall in crime, it’s probably worth checking that the fall in expulsions could not be the cause.

When we try to explain changes in youth crime in Scotland by looking at expulsions, we have all the same problems we have with suspensions. The numbers involved are too small, and the changes in youth crime seem to have happened in England and Wales too. But we also have the problem that expulsions were never as common in Scotland as they were in England and they were extremely low by the period mentioned in the stories.

The change in expulsions in Scotland has been even more extreme than that for suspensions, but the numbers are far smaller to begin with.

The changes in expulsions seem to be too small to explain the falls in crime after 2010 that the above stories mention. The graph above shows absolute numbers, so by 2010 we are already talking about less than 100 expulsions for the whole of Scotland. Yet the offence referrals have reduced by 1000s. Looking at the longer period, it should be noted that the highest rate of expulsions for Scotland is 0.4 per 1000 pupils (found here). By contrast, the expulsion rate in England has, after rounding, never been below 0.06%, i.e. 0.6 per 1000 pupils, even in the pandemic. If having low expulsions were the key to cutting crime, Scotland should never have had a crime problem in the first place. This is a point that isn’t much noted among those who use Scotland’s fall in youth crime as a reason England should reduce expulsions. Glasgow did have a much higher expulsion rate than Scotland as a whole (I calculate it to have been about 2 per thousand in 2006/7) but, as mentioned earlier, Glasgow’s relative fall in offence referrals was actually slightly less than elsewhere in Scotland (see below), making it unlikely it could be attributed to the expulsion rate having further to fall.

The other point I wish to address is: why there is this focus on Glasgow? Journalists have taken a national policy change in Scotland;  described it as a policy pursued by one city; attributed changes in crime rates in that city to the change, and underplayed the extent and size of those changes. To be fair, it could partly just be narrative convenience. Glasgow does have the highest crime rate in Scotland, and was once considered “the murder capital of Europe”, so a reduction in crime there makes a more interesting story than one about somewhere in Scotland with very little crime to begin with. Nobody is likely to be particularly impressed to hear how the isle of Gigha experienced no bicycle thefts after suspensions and exclusions were reduced. Ignoring the national context, and focusing on Scotland’s largest city, might make the story more interesting than one about the whole of Scotland, and more relevant to those looking for a lesson that might apply to other cities in the UK or the world. That said, there’s also a pretty interesting local context being ignored when suspensions are considered as a major cause of crime in Glasgow. The story of crime prevention in Glasgow is a lot more complex than suspensions being reduced. For instance, this article does not even mention suspensions.

Alternatively, another reason for focusing on one city might be because the policy of reducing suspensions and exclusions as national policy might make the reader more curious about national concerns. One Scottish teaching union has complained that violence has been “normalised” in Scottish schools and there is plenty of evidence that the reduction in exclusions does not reflect a “behaviour miracle” that has reduced the need for exclusions and suspensions. Looking at the whole of Scotland, there would also be the issue of whether attempts to keep all pupils in school, no matter the dangers, may have resulted in more serious crimes, like knife crime and even a fatal stabbing, happening in schools.

As a policy, I doubt that the national refusal to expel, or suspend,  is particularly popular,  or that its effects are particularly positive. School discipline became a big political issue in England when a similar policy was attempted in the 00s, even though expulsions and suspensions were never reduced to Scottish levels. In Scotland, the negative effects on schools have largely been ignored, with coverage instead focusing on youth crime. However, as I’ve argued over three posts, there’s little reason to connect the two. Perhaps it’s now time for the media to question whether Scottish schools are safe places to be educated, rather than asserting that they are can be given credit for preventing crimes occurring outside school.



  1. […] Did Glasgow cut youth crime by ending suspensions and expulsions? Part 3 […]

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