Article: Youth Work and Apprehending Youth Violence

First Published: 20th December 2017 | Author: Gus John | Tags: , , , , , ,

In this searing critique of policy in relation to youth violence, Gus John focuses in particular on black young people and calls for a renewed role for youth work and education.

This essay is a digest of my submission to the Parliamentary Youth Violence Commission.[1] The Commission is focused on youth violence generally. However, I make no apology for focusing upon youth work and young black people. Brexit signals even deeper divisions and segregation in the society on the axis of race and of class than there have been to date and these were troubling enough. To put it bluntly, schooling is contributing massively to deepening social exclusion for huge sections of the society, despite the perennial obsession with league tables and with the scramble for properties near to schools which Ofsted tells us is where our children should be, irrespective of their record of exclusion, typically of young people with complex needs and despite an increasing number of those children being fed from food banks at home and with an indigestible diet of ‘fundamental British values’ at school.

I trained as a youth worker in the late 1960s and was a practitioner and youth service manager for twenty years before becoming a director of education and leisure services. Significantly, I was one of only two directors of education / chief education officers who had attained that position through a youth work / social education route. In 1981, the National Association of Youth Clubs published (in a manner of speaking) ‘In the Service of Black Youth – a study of the political culture of youth and community work with black people in English cities’, the report of the ‘youth and race in the inner city’ action-research project I had directed for them for five years.

That action-research was conducted in 16 local authority areas across England. It highlighted a number of important findings, including: the systematic way in which black young people were being failed by schools and by careers services; the futile attempts local authority and voluntary youth services were making to impose multiracialism on white and black young people rather than allowing them to form organic groupings and not define racial boundaries; the strenuous attempts the state and its institutions were making to depoliticise work with young black people and to encourage them to impose deficit thinking on themselves and to see the condition of being young and black in the society as a social welfare issue, framed by problems within themselves and their communities, rather than a political issue to do with structural and institutional racism and critically in this regard, the systematic displacement of politics in favour of projects.

All of this was compounded by the tendency, then as now, to define the purpose and function of schooling and education in the narrowest of terms and principally as to equip  people with skills for the workplace and for positioning the nation to be high up in the global league table of economic competitiveness. If, then, there were high levels of youth unemployment, that had to do with young people themselves, in the same way that they were held largely responsible for their poor schooling outcomes.

The youth service has always had a much more enlightened understanding of young people’s holistic development than schools. In this regard, the youth service has never seen schooling as a separate, let alone more superior activity, than the facilitation of social education in formal, informal and non-formal settings.

Some of the good practices that we were used to in the Youth Service included:

  • Social education programmes with young people with identified individual needs; programmes that include group work, one-to-one mentoring, outward bound courses, sport, drama and expressive arts, therapeutic interventions, skills training to enhance employability, etc.
  • Youth wings within schools, mainly secondary and parents / family learning centres in primary schools, with school based youth workers and family liaison workers (primary), working in tandem with school teachers and managers. Those same young people would normally also access youth provision in the community outside of school and have a relationship with youth work staff in both settings.

The current provision of learning mentors and teaching assistants who are typically deployed to work with young people displaying emotional and behavioural difficulties and those with SEND has not led to a reduction in the rate of school exclusion and the exclusion of vulnerable students with complex needs in particular.

A disturbing development which has been normalised, largely without protest, is that of criminalising young people while at school. Adolescents get up to all kinds of pranks and often conduct themselves in ways which compromise the safety of themselves and others. This is nothing new. Time was when schools saw it as part of their duty to assist young people in identifying and unlearning inappropriate behaviours and in developing emotional intelligence, especially an understanding of the impact their conduct has on others. Ways were devised as part of a social education curriculum, often with the engagement of youth workers, to help young people manage their anger and learn to resolve conflict without resorting to violence. That form of intervention with young people was an integral part of the school’s fulfilment of its purpose to facilitate students’ personal, social, emotional as well as academic development. Indeed, teacher education and training emphasised the importance of this approach as a pre-requisite, more or less, to some young people’s ability to focus on learning, to be at ease with and respect themselves and those around them and to get the best out of themselves. In that context, pastoral headteachers, learning support teachers and youth workers working in tandem with school managers and classroom teachers would see Codes of Behaviour and Discipline not as blunt instruments with which to clobber students, but as levers for creating and sustaining a learning environment in which all could feel safe and supported to learn and to teach.

However, this function appears to have been handed over to the police wholesale, with most secondary schools having a visible police presence, sometimes in what looks very much like outposts of the local police station. Misdemeanours and conduct which would heretofore have triggered intervention by school managers and youth workers, with the involvement of parents / carers and significant others in the lives of those people are now increasingly dealt with by police based in schools. In some cases, parents are only informed that there is a problem and that their presence is required after the young person has already been taken to the local police station.

Imagine what a different scenario we might have had, especially in urban settings and in the context of the expanding use of social media platforms, especially for varying degrees of cyber bullying, if the government had itself adopted a less intolerant and punitive approach to dealing with young people in those contexts and had promoted the deployment of youth workers rather than the police in schools and ensured that teachers had the time and training to support school students’ personal and emotional development as part of both a formal and an unstructured curriculum.

Moreover, once those young people go home from school, most have no access to such support in their communities. For those whose parents have multiple jobs, or who themselves find parenting challenging, access to support is considerably more limited. It is this void that has facilitated recruitment to gangs as well as engagement in youth offending, as young people’s schooling career and for many, their unemployed status, gives way to an offending career.

Yet, they who are subjected to excessive stops and searches by the police routinely on the streets, also experience police in their school corridors and school classrooms to the extent that their experience of authority at school increasingly mirrors their experience on the street.

In the last 25 years, there have been an unprecedented number of homicides among young people aged between 14 and 30, in which both victims and their assailants were black. Qualitative research I conducted among teenagers in a number of youth offending institutions (as yet unpublished) indicates that well over fifty percent of them had been permanently excluded from school, some while they were as young as 12.[2] I was one of four founders of the Communities Empowerment Network (CEN) in 1999. Since then, CEN has dealt with upwards of 1,000 cases of school exclusion each year, over ninety percent of which involve black boys.

The government spends around £100,000 on average for five young people in a PRU or other alternative provision per year and a similar amount for one trainee in a Young Offender Institution. A YOI with a capacity of 70 is estimated to cost in excess of £7m. There is no question that contingent upon the rate of youth offending in any one district, even if the government were to employ one youth and community worker per 25 young people in that community and if that team of youth and community workers were to conduct a needs analysis and plan their service provision on that basis, the government would save hundreds of thousands of pounds over and above the cost of youth work provision. In other words, successive governments have been at ease spending millions to send young people to jail and keep them locked up, with an increasing number graduating from young offender institutions to adult prisons, the only graduation most will ever have, than spending to keep and expand a national youth service and non-formal and informal social education provision for the nation’s youth.

Since 1997, successive governments have sought to ‘roll back the state’, including by introducing and rapidly expanding the academies programme, placing the provision of schooling in the hands of individuals and entities who have no accountability in the public sphere. In doing so, they nonchalantly displace the role of locally elected government in guaranteeing the defence of the individual against invidious forces that do not necessarily respect the rights and entitlements of those who cannot fend for themselves, or who constitute the excluded in society. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent on the academies and free schools programme and yet the government seems unconcerned about the fact that they are accelerating the rate of social exclusion among young people, even as they are projected as and purport to be the answer to state maintained schools and the ‘poor schooling experience and outcomes’ for which they are roundly held responsible. The expansion of academies and free schools has been in inverse proportion to the decline and near abolition of the Youth Service.

Despite the fact that schooling is compulsory and parents get sent to jail for not ensuring that their children attend school or receive approved schooling at home, schools are being encouraged by government to exclude students at will, often illegally and for spurious reasons, with little regard for their future, especially since it is well known that alternative provision results in the worst possible schooling outcomes for most excluded students.

I have long argued that a core function of schooling and education is for developing in people the skills and competences to take control of their own lives and to function as responsible social citizens, demanding and safeguarding their own rights, having due regard to and respect for the rights of others, and embracing their responsibilities to themselves, their families and to society. If schools fail to perform that function and if school students are not supported to develop those skills and competences, the chances are that they would be less likely to be competent at self management and less at ease with themselves and others.

Current schooling ideology in Britain and the schooling provision to which it gives rise is an ideology that promotes the cult of the individual, selfishness, greed, the survival of the fittest and the increasing tendency to seek private solutions to public ills, even when schooling and indeed government pretend that we all subscribe to ‘commonly shared values’ in a liberal democracy. But, maybe that ideology is what frames the ‘fundamental British values’ that government trumpets on about, principally to distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them’ and make evidence of their acquisition of those values a precondition for accepting ‘them’ into the fold.

There never was a time when government attention to youth policy and to making provision to support young people throughout primary and secondary schooling and beyond was more urgent. Hopefully, the Commission will resist all attempts to view youth violence through law and order lenses and focus rather on schooling and the role of youth workers in young peoples’ lives and in building communities.

Youth & Policy is run voluntarily on a non-profit basis. If you would like to support our work, you can donate below.

Last Updated: 12 January 2018


[1] This submission was among a number given to the Commission by Steve Rowley of Cardiff University at an evidence gathering session on 17 October 2017. The paper is on my website in the form of a vlog.

[2] These findings reflect earlier studies as reported in the links below:

The HM Chief Inspector of Prisons report for 2014-2015 made a direct link between school exclusion and youth offending:

“Eighty five per cent of boys in this report explained that they had been excluded from school before they came into detention, 73% said they had truanted from school at some time, and 41% were 14 or younger when they last attended school. These figures are both devastating and unsurprising…”


Gus John is Visiting Professor at Coventry University and principal consultant at All Africa Advisers.  He is a co-founder and current Chair of CEN, a charity that provides advocacy for excluded students.