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Apprehending Youth Violence (3/3):
Empowerment & Advocacy

Cont'd: The Commission requested that I provide answers to 10 key questions upon which I would have been asked to comment if I had been able to appear before them.

Those answers are given here.

Est. read time: 20 min

Empowerment & Advocacy

Apprehending Youth Violence (3/3)

Alternative education provision is now a lucrative industry and a staple in the schooling and education market. 
Those making such provision are not held to their legal requirement to comply with the Public Sector Equality Duty of the Equality Act 2010.  And if one were to conduct extensive qualitative research among young offenders in YOIs, one would find ample evidence to demonstrate that for far too many young people the alternative provision was little more than the ante-chamber to the YOI.

The implications of all that for children’s education rights and delivery of their educational entitlement, for their life chances, for social mobility and for sustaining cycles of deprivation are immense.  Such provision increasingly constitutes the mouth of the school-to-prison pipeline.  Therefore, when one considers the ethnic and social class profile of those most excluded from school, those disproportionately represented in YOIs and the prison system generally, of those with the greatest children and adolescent mental health challenges, there can be no question that there is an ethnic penalty that is structurally imposed on that section of the population pretty much from birth.

Such is the logic of the much trumpeted ‘zero tolerance’ approach that government, academies and the school improvement lobby insist upon, uncritically and without nuance.  And no doubt, the significance of young people in school uniform butchering one another at bus stops outside school gates, or at train stations during rush hour, is completely lost on those who celebrate the fact that as a consequence of their ‘zero tolerance’ whole school policy, these killings take place outside the school and not on school premises.

The Youth Justice Board, the Probation Service, academic researchers and parents and community groups have  all provided evidence over the years of the link between school exclusion, patterns of youth offending and wider social exclusion.  Excluding students on account of poor behaviour, aggression towards their peers and/or teachers, or on account of physical violence targeted at young people like themselves in the community simply exports the problem away from the school and often into arenas where such behaviours are reinforced without young people being able to access any form of support. They thus find themselves being defined  by their conduct and being profiled by the very schools that excluded them in the first place. My own research among young offenders in prison suggests that across the prison population, over 50% of young people serving sentences for serious youth violence (from assault to grievous bodily harm to manslaughter and murder) had been excluded from school and saw exclusion as the point at which their schooling career began to give way to their offending career.

In my view, the DfE should do three things in this regard:

  1. gather evidence of the damage school exclusion does to the most vulnerable groups in the schooling system, black boys, looked after children and children with special needs and disabilities particularly, having regard especially to data on the link between school exclusion and youth offending
  2. engage with the 27% of schools in England and Wales that do not exclude, assess and disseminate their strategies for keeping children in school while attending to their individual needs, however complex and
  • fund schools to enable them to access as wide a range of education support services as possible, including Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services and apply a zero exclusions policy across all schools.


What are your views on the use of increased surveillance/security techniques in education settings, such as searching and scanning and knife arches?

The use of such techniques reassure parents who are anxious about reports of gun- and knife-enabled murders involving school students, some as young as 10.  Young people increasingly live in fear of other young people, to the extent that some would sooner run into police officers in their neighbourhoods than approach groups of other black youths.

Young people’s fear of one another is something black youths themselves have been grappling with for decades:

‘In Bristol in 2007, I worked with 80 Black 12-16 year old school students, two thirds of whom were males, from three schools including an Academy.  In the course of the day, I set them the following task:

At this stage of your life, write down the three things you fear most.

Their deepest fears, presented here on the basis of the frequency with which they appeared were:


      • Dying
      • Death
      • Being killed/murdered
      • Going pen (going to prison)
      • Getting stabbed
      • My loved ones dying around me
      • Anything happening to my family
      • Losing loved ones
      • Our youths
      • Not achieving goals
      • Not being able to afford the things I want in the future( house, car, etc)
      • Not getting the opportunities I want
      • Not succeeding
      • Living by myself
      • The Tories in power


When I asked the entire group to describe what their schools did to engage with them in dealing with those fears, they could point to not one intervention save for the guidance and support a few individuals and their families were receiving from teachers who were ‘safe’ and with whom they had developed a good relationship.  Indeed, the majority of the students stated that their schools did not know they harboured those fears as ‘it’s not the kind of thing the school is interested in’.


John, G. (2010) The Case for a Learner’s Charter for Schools, New Beacon Books, London


That was just over a decade ago. Since then, knife crime has been on the increase as has the number and frequency of murders of black young people by other black young people.


But, while surveillance techniques might be reassuring, they have limited value as a short term measure and would be a mark of failure on the part of schools and parents working in partnership if the measures were institutionalised in the long term.  In the short term, most students determined to carry knives for whatever reason are smart enough to hide them for easy retrieval rather than risk walking through a security arch with them. In this sense, such security techniques have the same effect as police bulging with armoury patrolling the concourse of train stations.  In the longer term, if they were to become part of the architecture of the school or college, it would signify that the education provider is taking steps to avoid weapons being used on their premises. For a knife or gun to be detected by a surveillance mechanism, unless the student acquired it at the school gate, they must have travelled with it at least for part of the journey to school.  It means that throughout that journey they would have been a risk to the public, including some of the same students the surveillance measure is designed to keep safe, if not to the weapon carriers themselves.


The challenge for schools, therefore, is how to work in partnership with parents and students to address youth violence as the collective failure that it is, a failure on the part of parents and families, of schools and local authorities and of artists and media platforms that appear to validate if not promote youth violence.  As the quotation above suggests, if young people come to school full of anxiety about their safety and about the incidence of gun-and knife enabled murders in which young people are assailants and victims, chances are that they would mentally and emotionally be preoccupied with that irrespective of how much teachers might strive to engage them in learning.   If schools are in communities beset by youth violence, while not making that their sole focus, they have a responsibility to work with students and parents and support students in embracing the values and the knowledge and understanding that would ensure that they do not develop a predisposition to violence, let alone to the use of guns and knives.


While surveillance techniques might be used as a public safety measure, their use is also encouraged by police and sections of communities as a crime prevention measure and one which presupposes that those caught with knives or guns would face prosecution.


An increasing number of young people are suffering trauma and varying degrees of mental ill health as a consequence of experiencing, if not directly witnessing the killing of their siblings, friends or peers. Apart from young members of bereaved families, those young people do not access any counselling and therapeutic services.  An unprecedented number of young people have attended funerals of young people like themselves over the last 25 years.  The prison service plays host to more and more young people year on year, many serving long sentences.  Siblings, other relatives and friends of both those who are killed and those who are imprisoned for killing them often live with anger, bitterness and a thirst for revenge many years after.   All of this generates health needs in the short and long term.  It also necessitates an empathetic approach to the challenges facing young people and an array of preventive and remedial interventions that should not include profiling young people or depicting their aggressive conduct as manifestations of ‘gang’ culture, or as a predisposition to ‘serious youth violence’.


Do you have examples of best practice from your own experience that could be replicated nationally?

Most of my work with young people involves one-to-one mentoring and group work.
The young people I mentor are like the majority of their peers ever at risk of being affected by youth violence, simply on account of being young black males and living or studying in London, in much the same way that they are at risk of being stopped and searched by the police.  I act as a voluntary consultant to Options for Change, an organisation advocating for young people in Lambeth and adjacent boroughs.  I recommend the work this organisation does in support of marginalised young people and their parents.

I am also an honorary member of ‘100 Black Men of London’, an organisation that does great work with parents in support of their children’s self development and learning, as well as directly with young people themselves.

The Communities Empowerment Network (CEN) which I chair engages with young people who are excluded for fixed periods or permanently.  An integral part of the CEN approach is working with students on fixed term exclusions to put in place strategies for ensuring that fixed term does not escalate into permanent exclusions, as well as to address the students’ overall experience of schooling and of life in their community.   We are firmly of the view that  in spite, if not because, of the challenges young people face, there is need for more and more significant adults and men in particular to work with them and guide and assist them in managing those challenges and attending to their self development.

All those three organisations are strapped for funds, ever though an increasing number of parents and young people look to them to provide a service.  The irony and injustice that is built into the system could be seen by looking at CEN as an example.  That organisation sees an increase every year in the number of school exclusions parents ask us to assist them in dealing with.  Yet, while schools that are well funded in relative terms continue to exclude students rather than applying strategies for supporting them and keeping them in school, CEN and the organisations mentioned above are constantly having to raise funds in order to deal with the casualties they create. Here is a case of the statutory sector off loading on to the voluntary sector, irrespective of the added pressures the government austerity policies place upon already vulnerable groups in the society.

For this reason, too, the government should show itself to be much more concerned about the societal consequences of school exclusion, not least its impact on social exclusion and impose a zero exclusion policy on all schools.

To what extent is the education system equipping young people with the necessary skills to succeed in the employment market?

 The education system is clearly equipping many young people in some sectors of the population with the necessary skills to succeed in the employment market.   As such, this question needs to be much more nuanced.  Access to the employment market is far easier for young people with good schooling outcomes, especially when those outcomes enable them to progress to university, Russell Group institutions in particular, or to internships and apprenticeships.   Youth unemployment is something which affects predominantly young people with poor schooling outcomes, the same young people who predominate in statistics for school leavers not in education, employment or training.

Government statistics year on year indicate stubborn trends in schooling outcomes for young people by gender and ethnicity.   That data evidences the importance of not seeing ‘young people’ as an undifferentiated mass, whether that be within individual ethnic groups or across ethnic groups.  Asian groups, Indian students consistently do far better than Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.  Chinese students have schooling outcomes similar to those of Indians and both of those groups do better than the rest of their peers year on year. Black Africans do better than Black Caribbeans,  Black African girls do better than Black African and Black Caribbean boys.

But, even before one examines post-16 progression for ‘young people’, one has to take account of the ‘off rolling’ and weeding out that schools do, especially of Black Caribbean boys, mixed heritage boys (Black African/white and Black Caribbean/white in particular) , looked after children and children with special educational needs and disabilities.   They are typically the groups that are subject to managed moves and to fixed term and permanent exclusion. They are consequently represented in Pupil Referral Units and other forms of alternative provision, where typically they sit for fewer GCSEs, they seldom have opportunities for meaningful apprenticeships and the learning environment is not conducive to the acquisition of self management and social and life skills, all of which the workplace needs, irrespective of whether one is a banker or a painter and decorator.

When in 2005, Mike Tomlinson produced his report on the review of 14-19 education policy in which he raised questions about the obsession with GCSE and  A Level results as the measure of school attainment, proposing instead a new Diploma for which students would study at the age of 14 and which would bridge the divide between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ areas of the curriculum,  an official from the then Department for Education and Skills commented:

“Alongside that reform we have made record investment in education. We need to continually push for higher standards, and that means giving schools more freedom and a greater say. We have had real improvements in performance because we have had tough targets for school results and halved the number of failing schools. We make no apology for doing what is right and what is needed…..Our proposals for 14-19 reform will for the first time ensure that real options are open to every child – both traditional academic options and vocational ones…..  We are making sure that in the future effective advice and guidance is available to every young person so that they can make intelligent informed choices about the study that best suits them.”

But, ‘giving schools more freedom and a greater say’ included giving them more licence to exclude, both for infractions and for breaching school rules, as well as for poor academic performance.   While ‘…we have had tough targets for school results and halved the number of failing schools’ might sound innocuous, the DES offered no comment, either on the implications of those ‘tough targets for school results’ for those students who had an absolute right to education but who nevertheless needed schools to also attend to their needs, including the need for support in dealing with the complex challenges many of them were f acing in school itself, as in their families and their communities.

One obvious answer to the question, though, is to study the percentage of young people in custody who are functionally illiterate or only marginally literate.

Again, I would say that the education system would stand a better chance of equipping young people with the necessary skills to succeed in the employment market if it kept them in school rather than excluding them and shunting them into dysfunctional alternative provision and if schools focused much more on addressing their needs, however complex, and equipping them with necessary social and life skills.

The racial profiling of black boys in the schooling system and in society generally has a damaging effect not just on how others see and treat them, but on how they see themselves and on the level of their aspirations.  If they get a sense that the schooling system expects little of them, irrespective of how focused they may be on learning and if as a result they do not or cannot build positive, trusting and supportive relationships with teachers and significant adults,  they are unlikely to have an orientation towards the workplace.

In this regard, let me say how retrograde it is that some schools in urban areas have abandoned their work experience programmes on account of budget cuts.  Through those programmes, students were introduced to the world of work and encouraged to raise their aspirations and to develop the discipline and skills necessary for the workplace.  Many were assisted in gaining more insight into what happens in the jobs or careers to which they aspired.  This was especially valuable for less advantaged students in the system, especially looked after children and those with special educational needs and disabilities whose parents did not have the kind of networks that more or less guaranteed work experience opportunities for their children other than those organised through the school.

Here again is an example of how the absence of social and cultural capital has an impact upon schooling outcomes and life chances for some students in the system and why ‘young people’ cannot be seen as an undifferentiated mass as the question appears to suggest.   For not only are some parents in the learning community of a comprehensive school able to pay for costly extension classes for their children while other parents struggle to give children a decent meal once a day, the former can also guarantee work experience opportunities and mentoring for their children, even when the school has no resources to operate such programmes.


How can we incentivise young people to train for the world of work, rather than getting involved in gang/drug related activities, especially when their pay is likely to be low and they don’t see the role models who’ve succeeded out there?


Working that same group of young people in Bristol (see 5. Above), I set them an exercise to discuss among themselves the following question:

Why is it that some young people (boys and girls) from the same family do well at school, live peaceably with their peers and manage themselves well in their community, while their siblings do the complete opposite and…. end up dead?

The students identified a range of key issues to do with, among others:


      • Self esteem
      • Level of aspirations
      • Capacity to resist peer pressure
      • Making fast money
      • Reasons for and consequences of resisting parental guidance and discipline
      • Self management skills
      • Society’s expectations that black boys can’t do well
      • Quality of support from people they respect, including some teachers
      • Not wanting to be seen as a ‘goodie two shoes’
      • ‘My brother is a geek. He so would never survive on road’.
      • ‘Need to be tough and deal with mans that disrespect you’
      • ‘You have to be able to handle yourself on road’


Students don’t get up one day and decide that they would choose the alternative economy of drug dealing, street robberies or whatever it is, rather than ‘training for the world of work’. This is a rather stereotyped view of school leavers, white or black, male or female.

The above responses indicate that students are only too aware that they have agency and that a range of factors inform their decision to engage with learning and to work according to their potential in the school setting. Students react to the profile they feel they have in the schooling system and in their particular school.  Some choose to act according to type, especially when teachers write them off and make it clear that they would sooner see the back of them. The classification schools use to determine which students are worth the investment of time and effort in building positive and supportive relationships with them and providing them with quality teaching and which are better off excluded or offloaded to other provision, typically mirrors the academic and non-academic divide that stubbornly persists in the schooling system.

Incentivising young people to train for the world of work requires that we change our mindset, acknowledge that ability, talent and student attainment cannot be measured wholly by tests and examinations and put in place meaningful training and apprenticeship opportunities that  could make young people confident of effecting sustainable change in their life or/and lifestyle.  It means acknowledging that many young people are turned off learning during their schooling career as a consequence of a range of experiences and that it is therefore wrong and abhorrent to assume that their poor schooling outcomes are necessarily a measure of their talents and abilities.

For young people who have been involved in violence, what do you see as the greatest barriers they face to gaining qualifications and employment?

One of the major barriers they face is the possibility of reprisals and escalating  violence, whether or not they are prosecuted/convicted/imprisoned for the offence.  The absence of restorative justice programmes, or similar initiatives, makes it more difficult for assailants and victims to have a forum to air and clear differences and afford themselves the opportunity to learn, heal and seek closure.

Another barrier is the emphasis on punishment with scant regard to the need for rehabilitation.  Prison inspection reports, prison managers’ reports and the probation service all highlight issues to do with mental ill health and the absence of general wellness among young offenders, especially those found guilty of serious youth violence.

Employers have shown themselves to be very reluctant to employ people convicted of violence.  Many have a justifiable concern about risk and about the welfare of staff and customers, especially as quite often people’s involvement in violence is seen as indicative of anger management issues, or of a reckless disregard for human life.  A focus on wellness and rehabilitation should be matched by awareness raising initiatives with employers, so that they are made aware of what is being or has been done to engage with young people involved in violence and the support that will be available to them as employers if they committed to employing such young people.

People involved in violence face internal as well as external barriers and that is why a focus on wellness and on violence as a public health issue is so necessary, whether that be domestic violence or violence in the streets.  A focus on health and wellbeing can help such folk to examine their conduct and the background to it and determine how they wish to go forward. Gaining qualifications and employment might well be part of a wider set of goals such people choose for themselves.

How can policy-makers best support employers to support young people from disadvantaged backgrounds?

See answer to foregoing question.


Professor Gus John is a former director of education, a former adviser to Jack Straw  when Home Secretary on race and social inclusion and a special adviser to Boris Johnson, former Mayor of London, on serious youth violence.  Professor John is a Visiting Professor at Coventry University and Associate Professor at the UCL Institute of Education.  He chairs the board of trustees of the Communities Empowerment Network (CEN), a charity dedicated to providing advocacy and representation on behalf of excluded students and their families, as well as to students at risk of exclusion.

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