The closing gap between education and youth justice

Sarah Brooks-Wilson
Tuesday, 29 March 2016

It may be unsurprising that young people have to attend the majority of activities associated with their youth justice orders - refined and targeted policies become obsolete when young people are not there.  Youth justice policy guidance describes absence from compulsory appointments as non-serious non-compliance.  Yet repeated absence can be serious because sentence escalation and even custody can follow as a consequence.  Young people in the youth justice system experience greater educational difficulties than their unconvicted counterparts, so an increased focus on education and the impact of childhood convictions in the Taylor Review of youth justice is welcome.  My recent research on youth justice mobilities has revealed four further considerations for school access within a youth justice context.   

Engagement with different school settings can result in varied absence outcomes.  Some young people can find it difficult to access and engage with static, mainstream schools (and their sometimes rigid procedures) in a regular and timely way.  Those attending pupil referral units can find it easier to engage with a flexible, part-time curriculum but location sparsity can present its own access problems.  For the fewest young people with the greatest problems, youth offending teams can deliver a highly flexible and inclusive alternative curriculum to fit in with young people’s varied constraints in time and space.  When responding to instances of school absence in youth justice, these examples highlight how the context of school delivery remains an important consideration. 

Currently resourcing withdrawal in youth offending teams (YOTs) means informal access support could become increasingly difficult.  YOTs have a responsibility to broker young people’s access with local services, with support dependent on needs assessments and resourcing constraints.  Practitioners currently respond in a range of ways, providing lifts and bus fares, while rescheduling and relocating appointments.  When responding to young people’s school absence in youth justice, the service access challenges that can arise from resourcing constraints are important to take into account. 

A range of issues can impact whether education becomes a compulsory youth justice requirement, and diversion from youth justice for minor misdemeanours can be one such factor.  For diverted young people, needs can still be met by a broad range of services with attendance no longer compulsory.  In the context of school absence this is important, because consequences such as sentence escalation then become obsolete.  Yet further questions can also be raised about whether the capacity remains to provide tailored, resource-intensive service access support for growing numbers of diverted young people. 

Currently, school absence consequences in the education and youth justice sectors make different suggestions about who is responsible.  In the education system, parents can be prosecuted for school absence up the age of 16, with young people then responsible between the ages of 16 to 18.  If education is a compulsory youth justice requirement, young people can be further prosecuted for school absence.  As the connections between youth justice and education become heightened in the new system, it would be useful to consider how to direct school absence consequences more consistently.

An increased consideration of education in youth justice - as outlined in the Taylor Review - is important.  But an opportunity has also been created to iron out some problems in the ways that youth justice and education policies currently interact.  While acknowledging that young people can choose not to attend school, locations and journeys are also crucial to consider when designing youth justice policies that respond to school absence.

The author is currently undertaking some work with the Youth Justice Board to promote service access awareness.  With thanks to the Economic and Social Research Council (grant 10104139), Dr Lisa O’Malley for supporting the development of ideas, and Gareth Jones (Chair, Association of Youth Offending Team Managers) for commenting on an earlier version of this article.

Sarah Brooks-Wilson is Research Associate, Department of Social Policy and Social Work, University of York. You can follow Sarah on twitter @sbrookswilson