Youth justice and the role of schools


What does youth justice have to do with schools? After a major report highlights serious issues within the youth courts system, Dr Hilary Emery looks at the role of schools and education.

A “teacher with a criminal record” does not progress equally to one without. In his comments last week Lord Carlile, talking about the inquiry he has led into the Operation and Effectiveness of the Youth Court, agreed. 

He asked the gathering of legal experts and children’s sector leaders in the House of Lords if it was fair or reasonable that a highly qualified, well-respected teacher was still having to carry with him and declare a conviction for shoplifting committed when he was 14? 

Or that this should continue to affect his chances of appointments and career progression? 

He told how the inquiry had heard examples of the shadow that criminal records can cast across a lifetime, having an impact on job and life chances indefinitely.

It does not seem right that children, possibly as young as 12, who have been convicted for minor crimes and do not reoffend, should carry this forever. 

That is why Lord Carlile’s report recommends that children who have committed non-serious, non-violent offences and have stopped offending should have their criminal record expunged when they reach 18.

The inquiry was prompted by long-held concerns that the way criminal courts operate now do not offer the most effective means of dealing with young offenders. It set out to explore, among other things, whether the youth court is fulfilling its aim to reduce offending and take account of the welfare of the child.

At the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) we were pleased to have provided the secretariat for the inquiry, which was supported by the Michael Stieff Foundation and the Dawes Trust, since it goes to the heart of our commitment to reducing the impact of inequalities.

Lord Carlile, launching the report last week, expressed the hope that any and all political parties could adopt the recommendations as part of their policies for law reform in the new Parliament in 2015.

While this report is clearly important, teachers and school leaders might ask what this has to do with day-to-day work in schools?

The report looked at the needs and problems experienced by children in the youth justice system. It found that more than two thirds of young people in custody had had a period of non-attendance at school and one third had SEN. Nearly two thirds of these children have a communication disability and a similar proportion of children in custody have had a traumatic brain injury. 

More than a third are on the child protection register and significant numbers have mental health problems which include self-harm and attempted suicide. All these factors heighten a child’s risk of offending.

While schools alone cannot have an impact on all these factors, it is clear that as members of the community of care around children and their families schools can, and do, play a part in lessening the likelihood of offending.

One of the questions put to the legal experts at the launch was how the legal professions can support children who drop out of school, and ensure that all the work schools have already done with these pupils is shared with the police, solicitors and judges? 

It is often the criminal justice system which will be called on to support these vulnerable young people. This links to the concerns raised in the recent NCB report Not Present, What Future? into children missing education (see further information for a link to SecEd’s coverage of this report) where from Freedom of Information requests to local authorities we estimate that on any given day some 3,000 children are missing education and their whereabouts are simply unknown.

Lord Carlile’s response was typically concise and to the point. He talked about the links to exclusion and cited earlier work by himself and others that called for a requirement on schools to accept a pupil for each one they exclude. 

The way that exclusions are handled needs discussion between schools in local areas as they move to new forms of organisation so that there are links between them to share practices and learning to support what can be highly vulnerable and challenging children. 

While we know that no school wants to exclude a pupil situations can reach a position where for some it seems the only way forward. However, in other areas by working together with other schools and services in the local area, managed moves and alternative forms of support can avoid exclusion being the inevitable outcome.

But what about those children who do break the law and need urgent help to divert them from the path of criminality? Sadly, Lord Carlile’s report confirmed that assessments of a child’s needs is rarely shared between agencies and it may be as late as sentencing before the full picture of a child’s needs and problems is considered by the judiciary.

Part of the problem is that the youth courts are seen as an easy place for inexperienced legal professionals to cut their teeth, and these people may be unaware of existing systems to gather information such as special needs assessments in schools, and support work from social care units in local authorities, or anecdotal evidence from pupil referral units. 

They may also misunderstand the wholly different focus of youth courts as seeking to prevent re-offending rather than punish the guilty.

To find a solution requires more than the familiar cliché of better “joined-up services” – it requires a shift in mindset: one that starts from the premise of a criminal justice “service”, not a criminal justice system that transports bewildered young adults from the streets to a grim adult reality.

Teachers often know from early on those children who are at potential risk of exclusion later in their school careers. We need to work on breaking the cycle that leads to that exclusion, building strong links between schools and families so that when problems arise there is a bedrock of good relationships and trust with those managing their school lives.

We need to ensure children develop good speech and language skills early on and that any SEN are identified and addressed promptly.

Schools want and need to support the wellbeing of all children and where mental health issues arise school leaders need to ensure all staff are well informed, through use of materials like MindEd, to deal with these effectively and refer them on when needed. 

The way we turn these children’s lives around is no different from what is needed for all children to be successful: it includes good sex education including making children aware of the importance of relationships and the importance of consent; challenging and addressing bullying when and where it arises including cyber-bullying. It needs schools to have thorough citizenship education so that young people are better informed about the impact a criminal record can have on their future lives including its impact for jobs, careers, education and foreign travel visas. 

Lord Carlile’s report has much to say about how courts need to change their practices too, including supporting young people to understand what is happening and ensuring the courts listen properly to what children and young people have to say. Helping remove the bewilderment of being asked, for example, if they felt remorse, a term that they simply may not understand in that form. 

This is an important report and well worth school leaders and teachers taking the time to read and reflect on its implications for our practice in schools. Schools play a key role in preparing all children and young people to be effective members of society. 

Working with partners they can and should be part of challenging and supporting those of our children who are at risk of getting involved in criminal activity, or who are actually involved, so that we build our social capital which in my view is at a core purpose of our education system. 

We come to the end of another school year and I find it interesting to see how much of our work at NCB this year coalesces around the implications of this report. As everyone goes off for the summer it is a good time to reflect on what has worked really well, how we want to build on these successes in the coming year, and which issues we now want to tackle.

  • Dr Hilary Emery is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit

Further information
  • To download the final report of the Youth Courts Inquiry – entitled Independent Parliamentarians’ Inquiry into the Operation and Effectiveness of the Youth Court – visit
  • SecEd’s article on the NCB report Not Present, What Future? was published on June 19, 2014, and is entitled Every day, 3,000 children miss education – and we have no idea where they are:


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