The School to Prison Pipeline: A UK Perspective

at the University of Birmingham (7 November 2022) as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences

We hosted a very lively and insightful event on The School to Prison Pipeline: A UK Perspectiveat the University of Birmingham campus on a rainy Monday evening (in November!). We were delighted to see so many attendees engaged on this topic. We’d like to start by thanking our distinguished panellists for their time and for sharing their expertise and knowledge around this important topic. Our very special thanks go to Festus Akinbusoye – Police and Crime Commissioner for Bedfordshire, John Campbell-Muir – founder of the ‘Training the Future’ scheme that supports skills development in young people and Malik Harrison – lead trainer in the Connect Futures programme that works to build resilience against violent extremism and exploitation. The discussion was facilitated by three University of Birmingham academics – Juste Abramovaite (Research Fellow, Institute for Global Innovation), Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay (Professor of Economics) and Tara Lai Quinlan (Assistant Professor in Law and Criminal Justice).

Discussion started with some opening remarks by all three panellists. Malik talked about his love for music, becoming an artist and his work at schools. It was especially interesting to hear from Malik about the grooming practices of individuals and groups who exploit of young people, which he highlights to young people during his school visits. Malik shared how exploiters focus on young people with  various vulnerabilities – age, family structure at home (is there an older brother to protect the targeted young person, what is the relationship with their father), financial well-being in terms of what trainers or phones they own, respect for authority, and many others. John shared his own lived experiences and how his special educational needs were never assessed and in turn, never supported while in school, which led him to miss out on attaining any educational qualifications. He highlighted the importance of addressing differences in the ways children learn, and how one way of teaching and learning cannot be suitable to every child. Festus shared his own fascinating story – growing up in East London, all the tough things he has witnessed, but how his strong family values and basketball kept him away from trouble, and gave him a different perspective and focus. He is currently, as the PCC for Bedfordshire, funding sports camps for youngsters who might not have anywhere else to go during school holidays and he shared of how successful these programmes have proved to be.

The audience asked a series of interesting questions which led to lively debates. One issue which came up repeatedly in the discussions was the importance of the school curriculum, which was, in turn, linked to the way children were educated. There were comments about how dated school curricula are, how lessons may not resonate with students’ lived experiences, and how this may not encourage pupils to read and engage with learning materials. Malik gave some great examples of more spontaneous lessons he taught at schools by pulling children together to create films and performances and how well they responded. What was clear, after the discussion, is that not everyone learns in the same way, and whilst some level of school curriculum standardisation is necessary, different approaches and different assessment criteria should be explored. When children who struggle to learn (due to dyslexia, word blindness or other challenges) come to formal education, they can very quickly become discouraged and lack any motivation to continue, which are strongly associated to problems at school and, in extreme cases, can lead to school exclusions. The panellists made clear that the link between school exclusions and further life outcomes is a negative one. Data reflects that more than half of adult prisoners (in the UK) have a record of school exclusions (compared to a national average of around 5%), which evidences a definite overrepresentation of excluded pupils among the prison population.

This insightful discussions left us thinking that, when it comes to disruptive behaviour (at school, home or simply on the streets) and criminalisation later on in life, preventative strategies should not be just a matter for the police. Prevention requires a multi-agency approach that should address the complexity of needs of very young people as early as possible. This requires support – support at school, as well as support at home to parents who might struggle to help their children learn, provide practical guidance and resources appropriate to each particular child. This support is crucial to enable struggling young people to finish school successfully and gain the qualifications needed to become employable in the future. And, as one member of the audience said, we should not be afraid to name the ‘elephant’ in the room – poverty.

Poverty interferes with all the issues discussed above – parents won’t have much time to support their children if they have to hold three jobs just to pay the bills; they won’t have the money for after-school activities, clubs or sports which would keep young people engaged, active and away from the streets; they won’t be able to afford ‘nice trainers’ or brand new phones which can then leave young people more vulnerable to the grooming practices described above, they won’t have resources to seek legal support whilst navigating the system of what their child is entitled to if they happen to have special education needs which will leave them without the needed support  to learn and thrive at school.

The debate and discussion made us aware of the nuanced channels by which school exclusion leads to later day adverse outcomes, including criminality and the inspiring ways our panelists have worked to help children at risk of exclusion.

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