Last week the Department for Education and the Ministry of Justice published a wide-ranging dataset on education, children’s social care and offending. The data focuses on those children who have been cautioned or sentenced for an offence, for committing serious violence or have been prolific offenders.
There are some predictable findings; the fact that 76 per cent of pupils who commit serious violence have had free school meals shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. The links between poverty and criminality are obvious for all to see. The fact that 82 per cent have been persistently absent from school should also not surprise many.
It’s fair to say that things get a little less predictable, at least for some, when we consider the data around exclusions, suspensions and attending AP.
For some years now it has been a well-accepted ‘fact’, perpetuated by segments of the British press and social media pundits, that being excluded from school and attending a PRU or AP is an inevitable precursor to a life of criminality and, ultimately, prison. The catchphrase “PRU-to-prison-pipeline” is now common parlance. The previous children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, was a particularly loud voice in this argument.
Within the AP/PRU sector we have long been certain that the link just doesn’t add up as simply as stated. Correlation doesn’t mean causation, and we know we make a difference. Our work with pupils and families may be under-appreciated, but pupils often come to us embroiled in criminality and our work can – and does – disentangle them.
But for all that, we could be forgiven for expecting that the data would provide cast-iron proof that children attending APs were committing violent crimes, or that being permanently excluded is an inevitable precursor of persistent offending. After all, up to February 2020 we had seen 18 months of regular attacks on the sector, with multiple national newspapers running headlines with variations on “All PRU kids carry knives” and “PRUs are recruiting grounds for gangs”.
They were wrong. Instead, we learn that a higher proportion of pupils who have been cautioned or sentenced have been suspended from school than permanently excluded. For 74 per cent of offenders, this period of suspension happens more than a year before offending. We can draw from this that we are missing significant opportunities within mainstream schools to identify and intervene with those young people who go on to be involved in criminality. It indicates a period of time where we may be seeing escalating behaviours in schools. SAFE taskforces will hopefully, in time, begin this work.
When it comes to pupils attending alternative provision, including PRUs, of those committing any offence, more than half did so before they joined the setting. This securely refutes the belief that attending AP leads to criminality. A further eight per cent joined AP at around the same time as their first offence – perhaps because they offended.
For serious violence offences, 52 per cent of offenders joined AP before their first offence – far from the overwhelming majority. We have to accept, however, that pupils in this bracket are probably well-placed in AP. There is a strong argument that we specifically exist for pupils who are out of mainstream for significant reasons. We are no longer a sector catering for those with persistent disruptive behaviour; more regularly we are meeting the needs of children with complex challenges.
It’s naive to think that pupils in APs are not at risk of offending behaviours, whenever it happens. But this data puts our sector squarely in the prevention and intervention space.
Now we know this, what’s to be done?
AP taskforces with the express aim of reducing youth crime have started to see the benefits of the approach. Once evidence points to successful outcomes, we will need to see widespread investment in the programme beyond these 21 areas.
The data already suggests that being in AP actually reduces the chances of committing serious violence once permanently excluded. So it’s time to ditch the misleading and damaging tropes and back the interventions that make a real difference.