In 2016 I set up the cross-party Youth Violence Commission to examine the root causes of youth violence and propose long term solutions based on the development of a public health approach. As part of our research we held a number of evidence sessions, the third of which focused on early years, education and employability. We heard from academics, practitioners and other experts in the field, including young people themselves.
First, the positive news: the general view among participants was that – providing they are correctly resourced and managed – schools can provide excellent opportunities for young people, as well as access to support which may not be available to them in other areas of their lives. It is clear that a public health approach to violence reduction must include schools and teachers.
However, our findings also demonstrate that the current system is failing some of our young people, particularly when it comes to exclusions and alternative provision (such as pupil referral units or PRUs). In 2016/17 only 4.5% of children educated in alternative provision settings achieved a 9-4 pass in GCSE English and maths and a 2012 Ministry of Justice study found that 42% of prisoners reported having been permanently excluded from school, rising to 63% for temporary exclusions.
Of course, it is not inevitable that pupils who have been excluded will go on to become involved in serious violence and crime. However, we cannot ignore the link between school exclusion and social exclusion: once children and young people are permanently excluded, it is very difficult for them to re-enter mainstream education. This means that they are more vulnerable to grooming by criminals and to becoming the victims or perpetrators of violent crime.
Yet despite these overwhelmingly negative outcomes – and the fact that the Government’s own Serious Violence Strategy recognises school exclusions as one of the risk factors for involvement in serious violence – exclusions are on the increase. Between 2012/13 and 2016/17 the number rose by 40%3.
At my adjournment debate on Monday 28th January I discussed this relationship between school exclusions and youth violence. The Government persists in ploughing money into the current system, but it is clearly not working.
This was in no way intended to be an anti-PRU debate. During my time with the YVC I have seen evidence of some brilliantly run PRUs which achieve great outcomes for many of their students. However, I believe that we need a radical re-think of the way in which funding is organised so that we can prevent the need for PRUs in the first place.
In our interim report , the YVC recommended a long term aspiration of zero exclusions from mainstream education and a reallocation of funding away from PRUs towards support and earlier intervention in mainstream schools. In order to achieve this, schools must be properly incentivised to keep pupils on their books.
The launch of Ofsted’s consultation on its new framework for the inspection of schools and colleges offers some hope that things may be starting to move in the right direction. The proposals aim to address concerns that education has become too narrowly focused on exam results and schools that push out less able children (a practice known as ‘off-rolling’) will risk being punished by inspectors. However, it is clear that there remains a great deal to be done if we are to achieve the necessary shift in focus.
Primary school teachers frequently tell me that they can identify which of their pupils are likely to be involved in future violence. The current system is failing too many of those children and that simply has to change.
You can watch the whole debate below: