Does it matter that there are a lot of young criminals?

April 2, 2022

In a recent blogpost I looked at research from the DfE and Ministry of Justice about youth offending.

The research is produced jointly by the Department for Education and the Ministry of Justice. It looks at the data for 3 categories of children selected from the 3 cohorts who were in year 11 in the years 2012-2015. It explains:

….three offending groups are identified in this publication: approximately 77,300 children who had been cautioned or sentenced for an offence, which is equivalent to 5% of the total pupil cohort; approximately 18,000 children who had been cautioned or sentenced for a serious violence offence (equivalent to 1.1% of the total pupil cohort), and approximately 12,300 children whose offending had been prolific (equivalent to 0.8% of the total pupil cohort).

This is not a sample, but as far as possible, an attempt to collect all the data from the pupils in those cohorts who fit the relevant criteria.

The first thing to notice is that, when you consider the size of an average state secondary school is about 1000, these pupils are not uncommon. The data on offending covers the children when they are in the 10-17 age group, but most first offences are within the age group 14-16. Ignoring changes in crime rates since then, do we secondary teachers think of our pupils as a population where 1 in 20 will have been cautioned or sentenced before the age of 18? Do we realise there is likely to be 1 violent young criminal in every 90 children? We might teach that many children before lunch some days. Are we aware that we can expect there to be one prolific young criminal in every 125 pupils? That’s likely to give you an average higher than 1 in each year group. If you account for the fact that these pupils will not be evenly distributed and you can expect to have a lot more of them in a boys school or a school in a disadvantaged area, its actually quite frightening. It’s also worth considering the fact that these are only the young criminals who were caught and sentenced or cautioned. Secondary school populations can include a lot of young people who have committed, or will soon commit, criminal offences, including both violent offenders and habitual criminals. This should be a fact teachers should be reminded of in every CPD session on behaviour, and I intend to blog further thoughts about this at some point in the future.

Returning to this discussion, I still think that it is incredibly important to notice just how high this level of offending behaviour is. Remember the above details next time you hear a non-teacher explain how children will behave as long as you show that you care; perhaps by greeting them at the classroom door, or smiling and asking how their weekend went. Remember this next time somebody claims that children won’t get up to mischief when left unsupervised, or can be trusted to stick to expectations of civilised behaviour without the need for punishment. Remember this, when somebody claims that some minor classroom sanction, or warning, is cruel because it will cause children to be “shamed”. The multitude of vocal people who spend their time explaining that schools should abolish lots of their rules, or give up on punishments, should actually be marveling that many schools manage to cope with keeping a significant number of violent criminals under control and engaged with work most of the time with nothing more than a stern glance and the threat of thirty minutes in a quiet room. Schools are not oppressive. In many cases, they are tolerant to the point of being dangerous, providing the worst of their pupils with an almost limitless supply of victims without adequately protecting them.

I would raise three points to consider that arise from this. Firstly, schools are expecting teachers (who are mostly women) to challenge the behaviour of pupils without fear, day in day out, despite the risk that a non-negligible number of those pupils (particularly among the boys) will be violent criminals. Schools are responsible for protecting other children from those violent criminals from 9 am to 3 pm, every school day. I cannot think of a clearer reason for schools to seek to maintain the authority of adults. The idea put forward that schools can ever manage this situation by being non-hierarchical; by just getting on with the kids; through caring a lot, or by “meeting unmet needs” is ludicrous. There are lines that must be held. If a school tolerates bad behaviour, then it will soon be tolerating serious crimes. There has to be a limit to what teachers can be expected to put up with.

Secondly, we should consider the extent to which it is possible that teachers in the most challenging schools already know they will be dealing routinely with young offenders. Perhaps in a lot of schools, staff have already factored in the possibility that enforcing rules will often mean telling dangerous criminals that they are in the wrong, and must do as they are told. We should consider the possibility that this is why, in some schools, particularly those where staff don’t feel supported, rules are not properly enforced. Fear of reprisal from some children may well be a factor in poor discipline in some schools. It may only be the most extreme cases where teachers are beaten, raped, injured or killed by pupils, but fear of the most violent pupils is going to be an everyday part of life for teachers in some schools. It is amazing how rarely this issue is discussed compared with, say, whether school rules are too strict.

A final point the data raises is the scale of permanent exclusions compared with the scale of offending. Looking at the data in detail we see that out of 3 cohorts of 1,632,320 pupils, there were:

  • 77279 pupils who had been cautioned or sentenced for an offence.
  • 17995 pupils who had been cautioned or sentenced for a serious violent offence.
  • 12276 prolific offenders.
  • 12708 who had been permanently excluded.

It is often claimed that the number of permanent exclusions is high. Compared with the number of pupils who have been cautioned and sentenced for an offence the number of permanent exclusions seems small. It seems reasonable to believe many crimes (particularly in school) go unreported; many crimes don’t result in anyone being cautioned or sentenced, and many prolific offenders are not identified as such by the authorities. So when you consider how likely it is that the figures for being cautioned and sentenced will only represent a fraction of the amount of offending, it seems clear that the number of permanent exclusions is low relative to the number of pupils who are potentially a danger to others. The average secondary school permanently excludes 2 pupils per year (that’s school year, not year group). This has been treated like it was so high as to be a national scandal. These numbers put it into perspective. Schools are likely to have more pupils who are sentenced or cautioned for a serious violent offence while school age, than they do pupils who are permanently excluded.

I’m not optimistic that debate on permanent exclusions or violence in schools will move on as a result of this new data. There seems to be as many people out there who consider young criminals to be “victims” as there are people who consider the permanently excluded to be the “most vulnerable”. Those who oppose permanent exclusions, even for the worst offenders, often claim it is incredibly rare for young people to be a danger to each other, or to commit actual crimes. Now we have the figures to show that they simply don’t know what the worst young people are like. Schools need the right to exclude; to enforce boundaries, and to maintain adult authority. If we want children to be safe from their peers, those who oppose these rights for school should have no position of authority, responsibility, influence or power in education. We do not want to end up like Scotland where, after years of preventing schools from excluding, we now have at least two teacher unions warning about how violence is tolerated in schools.

Violence and abuse of teachers ‘becoming normalised

Education in Scotland: Teachers ‘covering up’ violent behaviour

Update 3/4/2022: I have now added a tentative correction to the bottom of this post for the figures about how common young offenders are that I quoted above, due to the fact that some may be in AP, and therefore not found in your average secondary. I don’t think it makes much difference to my arguments above, but we should bear in mind that moving some offenders to AP is likely to have already substantially reduced some of the problems described.


One comment

  1. […] I said, I don’t think this affects any of my points in this, or my later post, but I thought I’d better acknowledge it. Thanks to Kat Stern for pointing it […]

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