Middlesex: a pioneer of degree apprenticeships

Dr Darryll Bravenboer, Director of Apprenticeships and SkillsDarryll Bravenboer, Director of Apprenticeships and Skills at Middlesex University, discusses the significance of degree apprenticeships and the need for collaboration to realise their full potential.

Higher and degree apprenticeships have massive transformational potential. They open up opportunities for people from low income and disadvantaged backgrounds to enter professional careers, as they can obtain the same university qualifications as traditional graduates while gaining invaluable on-the-job experience. The advanced upskilling they offer to employers means that degree apprenticeships help to drive the restructuring of job roles required to maximise UK economic productivity. As the government aims for three million apprenticeship starts by 2020 and its Apprenticeship Levy on employers is forecast to raise £2.8 billion by 2020, degree apprenticeships should be a major feature of the landscape.

National Apprenticeships Week 2018

Developing skilled workers

Middlesex University, one of only two universities to be awarded higher apprenticeship development project funding in 2011, is hugely excited to be involved in this agenda. The University currently offers a very popular degree apprenticeship programme in construction, in areas such as Construction Site Management, Quantity Surveying and Commercial Management, with big companies such as Vinci and Interserve. The University has been working with employers to establish business to business (B2B) sales as a profession for the first time in the UK, and is working in collaboration with a range of public sector organisations to develop and deliver degree apprenticeships for teachers, nurses, social workers and police constables, planned from September this year. This will play a key role in embedding apprenticeships in the public sector and is just one of the ways in which Middlesex University provides our public services with skilled workers.

There is also huge demand from employers across industry sectors for degree apprenticeships in the areas of digital and management, particularly in London. Middlesex has a longstanding partnership with the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) as an accredited CMI Centre and is a major provider of higher-level skills for the digital sector. This means that the University is very well placed to meet the management and digital needs of employers both nationally and regionally.

Collective success

Collaboration between employers, HE providers with degree awarding powers and professional associations has boosted the quality of degree apprenticeships. In the case of B2B Sales, a Trailblazer Group – chaired by Royal Mail and facilitated by the Association of Professional Sales, drawing together employers and three universities (including Middlesex) as members – developed a degree apprenticeship which constitutes B2B Sales as a full profession for the first time. This mark of recognition provides career progression opportunities for thousands of people. Moreover, a collaborative approach to working means that universities, as the providers, have been able to design a degree apprenticeship programme from first principles which aligns with employers’ workforce development needs as well as both professional and academic standards. The added value of this alignment provides evidence of the quality of this apprenticeship.

Surmounting challenges

We stand at the threshold of once-in-a-generation social change, and one of the best opportunities we will have to move beyond the unhelpful ‘academic/vocational’ dichotomy to establish a model of higher education that integrates work and learning, opens doors to a professional career and cracks Britain’s productivity weakness. Universities have a central role to play in delivering higher level skills and for this to happen, the roll out of degree apprenticeships needs to be expedited. A key challenge is the relationship between higher education sector and the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA), the body set up to supervise the development of high-quality apprenticeships and advise on the amount of government funding employers can draw on.

To avoid delays and misunderstandings which have held up the approval of apprenticeship programmes, we need universities to be represented on the IfA’s Board and across the organisation to make sure the sector’s critical role in delivering higher-level skills is recognised. This will ensure that, for example, there is understanding of the credit and quality regime that underpins higher education, such as the independent external examiners used by all universities, in order to avoid duplicate systems being set up before apprenticeships are approved. On funding, for which the government has capped the maximum at £27,000 per apprentice, the IfA’s approach to the allocation of funding bands for degree apprenticeships seems to be inappropriately depressing the bands, which acts as a disincentive for providers delivering levy-compliant apprenticeships. If we are to achieve the Government’s target of three million apprenticeship starts by 2020 and enhance social mobility and productivity, it is in the interests of employers, professional groups and providers to work together as effectively as possible. We need collaboration between all stakeholders to ensure degree apprenticeships are designed to meet employers’ needs and have the professional credibility that is conferred through the award of a degree.

While we wait for new apprenticeships standards to be approved by the IfA, Middlesex University is in a unique position to be able to offer degree apprenticeships in construction for which companies can maximise their levy spend. Apprentices will seamlessly transfer to the new standards once approved. Likewise, the 20 apprentices due to start on the new B2B Sales degree apprenticeship will begin their training using the Chartered Manager standard with an additional sales focus, and will transfer to B2B Sales following the approval of the funding band for this apprenticeship. We look forward to working alongside the IfA to help get these and other new standards in place so that we can all start to see the benefits of this ambitious and much-needed apprenticeships programme.

Learn more about degree apprenticeships at Middlesex University


Social commentary

Grenfell is no accident

Professor Kurt Barling Middlesex UniversityKurt Barling, Professor of Journalism and former BBC presenter, uses research and knowledge gained from his investigation into the Lakanal House fire in 2009 to shed light on the circumstances of the recent Grenfell Tower tragedy. Whoever is ultimately held responsible for this horrific event, all the evidence points to the fact that fire safety issues in tower blocks have been systematically neglected for years.

Grenfell was no accident.  It is a colossal scandal.

Meeting Rafael Cervi shortly after the Lakanal fire in July 2009 was a deeply emotional experience. I could barely contain the tears as he recounted watching helplessly while pleading to go back into the building to save his wife and two children who perished in the fire that engulfed their Camberwell block of flats. He had rushed home from work after getting panicked phone calls from his wife Diana. The unprecedented rapid spread of the blaze meant firefighters failed to reach them in time, along with Mbet Udoaka’s wife and newborn baby and Catherine Hickman. The fire behaved in unpredictable ways moving across floors and through internal cavities to hamper the firefighting and rescue tasks. Their stories fuelled my basic journalistic urge to ensure their trauma would never be knowingly repeated.

The young fashion designer Catherine had spent precious minutes on the phone with the fire service operator asking what she should do as the flames and smoke began to overwhelm her. These were replayed at the inquest and more tears were shed. She was told to stay put to be rescued. Her fire escape route from her flat would have taken her to safety. Neither she nor the fire service and firefighters knew the escape balcony existed; a crucial fire-safety feature overlooked by landlord, residents and fire service alike. A culture of fire-risk-complacency had taken hold at Lakanal House and those six deaths demonstrated urgent lessons needed learning.

Image: Lakanal House by Peter Gasston (CC 2.0)

It became one of the most challenging stories of my career. Beyond all those terrorism, war zone and youth violence stories I had covered, it was a story that I felt I had a responsibility to pursue tooth and nail because I reasoned my journalism could genuinely save lives in the future.

I got to know the families, local authorities, safety experts, government officials and activists who all had a stake in fire safety and discovered that not only were Tower Blocks complex but so were the regulations and relationships to ensure they were safe to live in. The research document Investigation into Lakanal House that I prepared for the University Research Excellence Framework in 2014 identified a key long-term narrative from some of the material I had broadcast into the public domain between 2009-2013 when the Lakanal inquest concluded.

Colossal warning

A Tower Block is a complex building as well as community structure. It houses whole neighbourhoods. Some are large enough to accommodate several streets worth of residents at ground level. In the event of a fire, evacuation and rescue needs proper safety procedures to do it safely.

The voluminous evidence presented to the 2013 Lakanal inquest into the six deaths, as a result of that fire, made it abundantly clear that the refurbishment of Lakanal House over many years had fundamentally compromised the fire safety of the 14 storey building.

The core principle of keeping the integrity of a High Rise safe in a fire, is that each individual flat should be able to contain fire from within for 60 minutes. This is called compartmentalization. This failed atrociously at Lakanal and there was no doubt in the minds of fire experts I repeatedly interviewed like Ronnie King, Arnold Tarling and Sam Webb, that periodic refurbishments had introduced key structural changes and new flammable building materials which substantially weakened the fire safety aspects of these buildings.

We discovered that in some cases only 5% of blocks in a borough had complied with the law.

Lakanal House was a colossal warning. Firefighters at the time said they had never seen anything like it before, nor would they want to see it again. Many suffered afterwards from PTSD. The abundant evidence from that fire showed that the building regulations were deeply flawed. Indeed one of the key recommendations from the Coroner Francis Kirkham in 2013 was that part B of the building regulations needed urgent review.

I can remember the argument in court when John Hendy QC (for the families) argued it was well-nigh unforgiveable to add flammable materials to the external envelope of a building which would make the building more vulnerable to rapid fire spread from outside the dwellings, not inside. Well, four years on and the government department responsible – Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) – is still apparently reviewing them. Procedures that would undoubtedly have saved lives at Grenfell have not been implemented.

Another of the recommendations from Justice Kirkham suggested that inadequate standards were employed in drafting Fire Risk Assesments (FRA), which must as a matter of law be undertaken on each high-rise block, residential or commercial, on a regular basis, but particularly after a refurbishment or structural changes take place. This is like a building MOT and warns landlords if parts of the building or maintenance regime need to be put right to minimize the risks of fire spreading and ultimately to preserve life.

Back in 2009 I broadcast a report after myself and colleague Ed Davey carried out a Freedom of Information request into how many of London’s 32 boroughs had carried out FRAs on their tower blocks.

The results sparked genuine public outrage when we discovered that in some cases only 5% of blocks in a borough had complied with the law.  In other words 95% of council tenants were living in high rises with no or poor up-to-date safety checks.

This was a disgrace then and it is scandalous to hear that the last FRA on Grenfell was conducted in 2015 before the refurbishments, which may prove to have caused the rapid spread of the fire.  Interestingly I have seen a 2013 solicitor’s letter from Kensington & Chelsea lawyers threatening the author of the Grenfell Action Group blog with action for allegations he was publishing about the sub-standard response to resident questions and concerns.   All I would say about this is that there is a pattern of public authorities trying to intimidate residents who choose public forums to discuss their concerns.  This breeds mistrust, which does not help a fire safety culture, but it does minimize scrutiny of social landlords or local authority’s responsibilities.

The advice on whether to stay put or flee fire in your block when your own home is ‘safe’, is laden with ambiguity in Tower Blocks.  The reality on the ground is residents are often given contradictory advice, as was Catherine Hickman which cost her her life at Lakanal.  A lot of those families who chose to ignore the advice at Grenfell saved themselves.  When a building, let alone an individual flat, cannot withstand fire for 60 minutes this advice is monumentally foolish.  I heard this foolish argument made many times during my research into Lakanal, foolish because it didn’t take account of the evidence.

Image: Upper Grenfell Tower by ChiralJon (CC2.0)

No easy answers

Grenfell reiterates the lesson of Lakanal that firefighters are often attending fires with both hands tied behind their backs, when the working assumption is that they have 60 minutes to locate the fire and put it out.  Well that is proving time and again to be a deeply and fatally flawed premise.  The recommendation from Frances Kirkham was more clarity was urgently needed.  The official response from the incumbent Minister Eric Pickles was that the local Fire Commander at an incident should make that judgment.  But how can they, if the fire takes less than 60 minutes to engulf a major part of a building and they do not have the means of communicating that advice on the ground to residents?

Lakanal House has a sister block and a fire in that block shortly after the Lakanal fire led to every resident self-evacuating.  One resident told me this week; they simply don’t trust the advice from the council or the London Fire Brigade.  In other words it is now common sense at ground level for residents to get out and not stay put. Saving lives in a fire requires a culture built on trust.

There is no doubt that fire safety equipment and sprinklers halt the spread of fire.  In the case of Grenfell the last FRA in 2015 found faulty fire equipment in many places and residents complained. Sprinklers are now standard in new developments and they can be retrofitted to older blocks.  It is a complex construction task but can be done quite affordably.  The Lakanal coroner asked that this be looked at sympathetically.  Still we have no traction from the DCLG on this issue when it comes to our older social housing Tower Block stock across the country.

Let’s be blunt, there are no easy answers, but the Lakanal House fire and the debates that emerged from it, including a Baroness Jenny Jones led London Assembly inquiry into fire risks in timber framed buildings, sought out reasoned evidenced responses.  A public environment which has seen cuts to local authority staffing, LFB fire-fighting capabilities and prevention programmes and social landlords turning to the private sector to manage complex buildings in poorer communities have all played a part in making High Rise living more vulnerable than when those buildings were originally completed.  It may be difficult but it’s not rocket science.

The result is a damning indictment of our approach to government; singular complacency in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Lakanal House was a dire warning. The trauma suffered by the families was a warning.  The inquest in 2013 and prosecution of Southwark Council in 2017 were all warnings.  The recommendations were a call to action. But none were heeded sufficiently, because those in government have seemingly chosen not to prioritise the fire safety issue with firm changes on the ground.  Despite their protestations to the contrary, the tragic evidence at Grenfell calls that seriously into question.

Political issue

I want to make one final point here on the politics of housing.  Since the end of World War II, social housing has always been a deeply political issue.  Providing adequate shelter for the more vulnerable or less affluent members of a rich society is a measure of our values in civil society.  If we believe people need social housing, it should be safe housing.  For those who will try to make party-political-points-scoring mileage in their response to this tragedy, glass houses and stones come to mind.  Social landlords across the country come in all political persuasions as they did across the 32 London Boroughs we found wanting in 2009.  The worst offenders were often those with the most social housing.  The authorities with the greatest burden had the poorest residents.  Think about it, all parties have failed on this fire safety issue.

The residents of Tower Blocks need the rule of law to be upheld and for the law and regulations to maintain a robust fire safety regime to be reviewed and amended if need be and then rigorously enforced.  No one in political life is innocent in this catastrophe.

The result is a damning indictment of our approach to government; singular complacency in the face of overwhelming evidence.  The time for talking is over and the time for real concerted action, listening to the experts, needs to start right now.

Rafael Cervi who moved back to his native Brazil and started a new family was lucky in as much as he has found happiness to heal some of that desperate trauma of loss.  Not everyone was so fortunate.  My personal regret is that all my efforts, as a journalist, did not reach far enough to save those many lives at Grenfell.  Ultimately, we fail those who perish if we repeat the avoidable mistakes and lessons learned from the past.

Professor Kurt Barling broadcast and wrote over a hundred reports for the BBC during his Lakanal House Investigations for BBC London News between 2009-2013.

Read how Middlesex University students have been assisting with the relief effort for the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire.

Social commentary

Top-down gentrification in Soho

The Baseline Collective, consisting of Middlesex lecturers Dr Magali Peyrefitte and Matt Ryalls, along with Dr Erin Sanders-McDonagh, is currently engaged in the Baseline Project – an attempt to document ongoing changes in the Soho district of London and understand the implications for people who live and work there.

It features a unique multi-sensory approach, involving urine, neon, sound and body mapping, to chart changes in the use of the space over time, alongside interviews with increasingly marginalised members of Soho society, as Dr Peyrefitte explains.

Soho - Photo by Magali PeyrefitteThe pace of change in Soho is hard to keep up with. The area is undeniably vibrant – attracting young professionals after work and tourists passing by into a growing number of cafes, bars and restaurants. This vibrancy marks Soho as symbolic of the 24-hour city, but these changes are also symptomatic of the neoliberal influences on the city. Historically, Soho has been home to gay clubs, music venues, sex shops, and brothels juxtaposed to form what Walkowitz in Nights Out – Life in Cosmopolitan London described as a ‘space of transgression’.

Soho - Photo by Magali PeyrefitteThe transgressive quality of Soho is becoming increasingly fragmented. A number of landmark venues such Madame Jojo’s (known by many as the home of cabaret and burlesque in Soho) have now been closed down and others are struggling to stay open. Neon lights continue to illuminate Soho, but they are nowadays more likely to ironically indicate the name of a restaurant or a bar than to signpost a strip club or a peep show. The contrast between the old neon lights of seedy Soho, and the new types of neon lighting used by hipster cafes and craft beer pubs becomes a visual sign of social change as a result of gentrification in the area.

Soho - Photo by Magali PeyrefitteWhile Soho may once have been a space of transgression, our research over the past 15 months suggests that the allure of Soho is increasingly more in line with other areas in London, where gentrification is altering the retail landscape and where dimly lit bars and restaurants catering for a more ‘hip’ clientele are now spreading. With these physical and aesthetic changes, the décor of gentrification is planted. This is also evidenced by an increase in the number of licences granted to the catering industry while there is a clamping down on licences for less socially desirable (and less morally respectable) sex shops and betting shops. Conversely, a number of commercial properties have been transformed into residential properties as private developers in concert with Westminster City Council are aiming to attract a wealthy population into the area.

Soho - Photo by Magali PeyrefitteRecently, Berwick Street Market has been the subject of some news coverage, with the media interestingly using the language of gentrification. Situated at the heart of Soho, the shrunken market is resisting the pressure of  Soho Estates, one of the main landlords which is redeveloping much of the area, including the space between Walker’s Court and Berwick Street where the market is located and has been operating for over 200 years. This traditional market has long catered for a local, often working-class population, selling fruits, household goods, fabric and flowers. The market is currently under threat as Westminster City Council is handing over its management to a private operator. In contrast,  30 metres away on Rupert Street, an area where strip clubs, massage parlours, and brothels used to dominate, a newly developed market in now booming, selling cosmopolitan, fusion street food in the places where seedier entertainment once flourished.

Soho - Photo by Magali PeyrefitteSoho - Photo by Magali PeyrefitteDuring the Baseline Project we have endeavoured to map the rapid changes happening in Soho using a unique combination of creative methods. We adopt a multi-sensory ethnographic approach to explore the area – looking at the ways in which sight, sound, smell, and touch are part of our experience of the city, and how changes in the area can be understood through our sensory reactions. We will, for example, map the neon lights of Soho, looking at how different venues use neon, and how long-established Soho residents and proprietors feel about the changes to the area. We are particularly interested in how gentrification is excluding certain marginalised groups (e.g. sex workers or social housing tenants) and we argue that Soho is becoming increasingly sanitised and shaping an artificial city. Ultimately we argue that what is happening in Soho is a very exclusionary form of gentrification that represents an exacerbated version of a neoliberal city.

For more, see Sanders-McDonagh, E. Peyrefitte, M. & Ryalls, M. (forthcoming) Sanitising the City: Exploring Hegemonic Gentrification in London’s Soho, Sociological Research Online.

All photos by Magali Peyrefitte.

Law & politics

Is pirate radio a problem in the digital age?

Dr Angus NurseDirector of Programmes in Criminology and Sociology at Middlesex University Dr Angus Nurse is working with his colleague Dr Robin Fletcher to examine the phenomenon of pirate radio in the 21st century.

The news last year that 400 pirate radio stations had been shut down brought the subject of pirate radio back into the public consciousness. For those of a certain age, the term ‘pirate radio’ evokes nostalgic ideas of counter-culture radio programming and a challenge to the stuffy monopoly of the BBC, recently celebrated in Richard Curtis’ film ‘The Boat That Rocked’.  In some respects, the contemporary reality of pirate radio builds on this legacy as modern day pirate operators continue to provide music that is often neglected by mainstream radio and serve music scenes that might otherwise be ignored.

At Middlesex, Dr Robin Fletcher and I are currently examining the modern-day phenomenon of unlicensed ‘pirate’ radio in the UK.  The aim of the research is to, so far as is possible, examine the extent to which pirate radio remains a contemporary social and regulatory problem. We are examining why ‘pirate’ radio persists despite the existence of legal alternatives to unlicensed broadcasting.

The research, which was commissioned by the regulator Ofcom, also aims to assess both why people continue with ‘pirate’ broadcasting on FM radio, as well as the reasons why audiences continue to consume ‘pirate’ radio broadcasts.

MV Ross Revenge, home of Radio Caroline from 1983, photographed in 1984 at anchor in the Knock Deep channel of the southern North Sea (Photo by Third Ear via Wikimedia Commons). Today, pirate radio is often broadcast from urban properties in London.

Pirate radio in the 21st century

The term ‘pirate radio’ can be contested. In our research, pirate radio is an umbrella term that refers to any unlicensed radio broadcasting. In looking at the available information on unlicensed broadcasting, including material from Ofcom, it appears that ‘pirate’ radio problems are most pronounced within London. While there are pockets of pirate radio in other major cities, such as Birmingham and Manchester, and isolated pirate problems in other parts of the UK, London has historically been a hub for pirate radio.

At its most basic level, a lack of available broadcast space on the FM spectrum, the number of high rise buildings suitable for transmitter installation and consumer demand for non-mainstream radio create the conditions for unlicensed radio broadcasting. Pirate radio offences can be found in the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006, which basically makes unlicensed broadcasting unlawful. However the question of whether pirate radio causes harm and the nature of that harm might be seen differently by audiences, broadcasters and regulators.

A spectrum of opinion

Our research is currently looking at the reasons why people listen to pirate radio and is exploring how far pirate radio reaches, particularly in London.  The extent to which an activity like pirate radio is seen as a ‘crime’ may well vary within and between communities. Where a pirate radio station plays music that can’t be heard anywhere else or offers specialist news or language service that benefits the community it might well be supported. By contrast, allegations have been made that some pirate stations cause disruption and damage to legitimate stations. This point has been raised in the work we have already done.  There have also been reports of pirate radio interfering with aircraft and emergency broadcasts. This is likely not an everyday problem, but should it happen it could be serious.

It is important to note that not all pirate radio stations are the same.

Those involved in pirate radio are often aware that it is illegal but continue anyway for various reasons.  For some the illegality and underground nature of pirate radio may itself be attractive, for others pirate radio is an essential route into the legal radio industry. However, the evidence suggests that pirate radio is more than just ‘simple’/’pure’ criminal activity. Instead a range of social explanations exist for illegal broadcasting offenses. It is important to note that not all pirate radio stations are the same.

We are now looking in depth at the reach of pirate radio and the reasons why people listen to it – especially in London. An anonymous online questionnaire we published last year has been updated to try to gain more information from listeners and the public and we would like to hear from as many listeners and members of the public as possible.

Law & politics

Supporting offenders who are also victims

David Porteous Middlesex UniversityThis week, the London Mayoral Office for Policing and Crime published research undertaken at Middlesex University into the development of support services for young people who have offended but have themselves been a victim of crime, abuse and violence. One of the authors of the report, Associate Professor in Criminology at Middlesex University Dr David Porteous, considers the issues raised by the study.

The ‘ideal victim’

In a famous book chapter penned in the mid-1980s, the Norwegian Criminologist Nils Christie coined the term the “ideal victim”.  Observing that some people in some circumstances are much more readily ascribed the status of victim than others, Christie compared two imaginary victims: an elderly lady mugged by a large male stranger on her way home from caring for her sick sister, and a young man hit on the head and stolen from by an acquaintance in a bar. The former matches the profile of the “ideal victim” because she is weak, engaged in a respectable project, cannot be blamed for being on the street at the time and has fallen prey to someone big, bad and unknown. By contrast, sympathy for the young man is likely to be qualified by his relative strength and because he was drinking and knew the assailant. He was, one might say, looking for trouble.

In the real world, young men are of course much more likely to be victims than elderly ladies. Indeed, research dating back decades tells us that young people in general are both more likely to be victims of crime than adults and more likely to be victims than perpetrators.  Perhaps more surprisingly, one’s chances of being a young victim are also statistically greater if one has offended and the reverse is also true, one is more likely to offend if one has been a victim. Confused? You should be. The real world is, um, not ideal and that, in part at least, is Christie’s point.

What though of childhood victims of adult physical and sexual abuse and/or violence?  Do they not meet the criteria of the “ideal victim”? Do stereotype and reality not coincide in such cases? Well, yes and no. Yes, there are a number of children who have become household names for the worst of reasons – Peter Connolly; Madeline McCann; Victoria Climbié – and whose murders remain in the public memory because they conform to deep held notions of innocence versus barbarity. But also no. No because what we do with far too many children and young people who have been victims of abuse and violence perpetrated by adults, is to send them to prison.

Needless to say, this does not happen immediately. The evidence suggests that society frequently places young people who have been abused in care first and it is from there that many – as many as a third according to a recent study – graduate to custodial establishments. Nor, of course, does this happen without the young person in question kicking up some trouble and victimising others. If only they could have accepted their victim status more readily!

While a branch of conventional criminological theory tells us that for a crime to occur, there needs to be present an offender, a victim and a suitable target, this is of limited use when the offender and victim are the same person but in a different place and time.

The uncomfortable truth

The uncomfortable truth is that most of the 1,000 or so young people resident at Her Majesty’s pleasure on any one day in England and Wales have experienced, witnessed and/or suffered from crime, violence and abuse, and that’s before they get there. And, as with other young people who have been raped, beaten up, shouted at, robbed or bullied, a significant number – estimates suggest around a half – will have emotional and mental health problems resulting from this troubled history. In a small but not insignificant number of cases, young people in prison and serving community-based sentences have been assessed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety, depression, nightmares and self-harm are much more common. 290 young inmates aged under 21 have died in English and Welsh prisons since 1990 according to the government’s own figures; 264 took their own lives. On the street, meanwhile, young people in contexts characterised by on the one hand economic disadvantage and social exclusion, and on the other, hey, a booming drugs market, continue to assault, rape and attempt to kill each other, victims of circumstance.

Jonathan Kos-Read Creative Commons 2.0
Photo by Jonathan Kos-Read (Creative Commons 2.0)

What then can and should we do to better support the needs of young offenders who have themselves been victims of crime, abuse and violence? Within the youth justice system, the default response at present is to refer young people assessed as having emotional and health needs linked to victimisation and/or trauma to a mental health nurse or clinician. I say “refer” because it is more often than not the case that no formal response is forthcoming, due both to limited resources – child and mental health services have been subject to real term spending cuts since 2010 – and because young people themselves shy away from the prospect of seeing a shrink, due to the stigma attached or because they think ‘it’s not me that’s mad’.

Somewhat ironically, psychologists themselves question whether forms of treatment such as cognitive behavioural therapy are appropriate for young people who have been subject to abuse and violence, as there is evidence to suggest these negative experiences can inhibit cognitive and behavioural development such that they are not ready or able to engage with this level of  intervention. From this perspective, more basic emotional and social needs have to be met first, including a sense of security and a semblance of normality, conditions unlikely to be met in a prison cell or psychologist’s chair.

Abstracting from individual needs and remedies, I would suggest we need to rethink our responses to youth crime. While a branch of conventional criminological theory tells us that for a crime to occur, there needs to be present an offender, a victim and a suitable target, this is of limited use when the offender and victim are the same person but in a different place and time. The labels ‘offender ‘and ‘victim’ do not adequately reflect the complex and difficult lives of those caught up in the web of the criminal justice system. We need to grow up, acknowledge the underlying problems, and show some compassion.