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"We all deserve a good education, right?" "We all have equal opportunities, right?"

Well, not quite...

In the UK, the age of criminal responsibility is 10 years old. Young people aged 10-17 who commit offences can face damaging impacts on their education and progression into further education or employment.

Nobody would disagree that education is essential for children; helping them to grow personally, develop resilience, and achieve social mobility. And yet, for those who get involved in the criminal justice system, educational success becomes much harder to achieve. In the UK, young offenders face specific challenges that disrupt their education, affecting their academic performance, and future opportunities.

Since the Covid restrictions, there has been a rise in 'stop and search' of children. These are often conducted on young people who are ‘hanging around’ or suspected of crimes like vandalism, gang affiliation and carrying knives. (Gov.UK)

We’ve all been guilty of hanging out with friends and messing about in our youth, haven’t we? But few of us have opted to carry a knife or participate in a more serious crime. Why then, are these children choosing to?

The reasons are vast and complex. Children are often drawn into criminal activity as a release, or to impress peers. They may not be aware of the age of criminal responsibility, or they may be unclear of what a ‘crime’ is. Add living in a lower-income family to the mix and this could impact them even further.

Other reasons suggested are:

  • Difficulties with learning in school.
  • Having friends who commit crimes.
  • Drug/alcohol misuse.
  • Lack of boundaries/parental supervision.
  • A diagnosis of ADHD/ASD.
  • Poor mental health.

Realising the impact that it has on their education, it is vital to understand that it is not simply a matter of being a ‘bad kid’ which so many are labelled. It is important to put it into context.

Data suggests that around 64% of young offenders have Special Educational Needs (Gov.UK) meaning that there are additional challenges for those offenders after their criminal conviction. For many children, this can lead to temporary or permanent exclusion from mainstream schools. This leads to further disruption and can result in a lack of stability and educational motivation.

So, what impact does it have on children's education after a conviction?

Firstly, this depends on the sentence they are given. In most cases, this will be decided through Legal and Social Interventions. Many receive Court orders or community sentences often requiring them to attend alternative education or training. Whilst this can support educational engagement, it can also add pressure to achieve, as well as timing conflicts on their current school timetable and examinations, leading to increased disengagement and poor exam results.

Alternative Education Provisions such as Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) are often the choice of courts. These are mostly for excluded students, and although the aim is to provide education, they generally lack the resources and opportunities available in mainstream schools. Not to mention that they are populated with children who are frequently written off as being ‘too bad for school.’ This environment propagates low self-esteem which leads to potential reoffending. It is a vicious cycle.

Those children aged twelve and above that are given custodial sentences, will have an even rougher ride when engaging in education. For instance, those under fifteen who commit serious offences could be held in a secure children’s home, whilst those over fifteen could be sent to a Young Offenders Institute (YOI) or given a Detention and Training Order (DTO) where the young person will spend some time in custody and some in the community under the supervision of the Youth Offending Team (YOT) (Gov.UK) Whilst these institutes provide education, the quality and continuity of education can be very inconsistent, with very little funding and resources. The reintegration into mainstream education after their release can be challenging. The education system is now tasked to ‘plug the gaps’ in education and emotional support, to a traumatised young person who has not had access to these resources.

All too often, those young people have a range of future issues that will impact their achievements both academically and socially. The effects of criminal convictions can weigh heavily on family relationships, which may already be fractured. The convictions can lead to a breakdown in relationships and loss of trust. These factors can further compound educational difficulties, including lack of support at home, arguments, and feelings of guilt, worry and stress.

FROM CLASSROOM to COURTROOM - Of those children sentenced in the year ending March 2020, 72% were found to have poor mental health... Share on X

Sadly, the challenges for a child having to navigate their educational lives after conviction frequently impact their mental health negatively. The stress and anxiety associated with legal proceedings, time in custody, children’s homes, courtrooms, PRUs, YOT meetings, and the associated stigma can have a devastating effect on mental health. Of those children sentenced in the year ending March 2020, 72% were found to have poor mental health. (HM Inspectorate of Probation.) This is a sad statistic but highlights the damage to the mental health of a child with a conviction. It can negatively affect concentration, motivation, and overall educational performance, not forgetting the larger picture of the current condition of poor mental health on children in general.

Children with criminal convictions are more likely to have lower educational achievements. Statistics show that 86% of young offenders had been persistently absent from school, and many had low attainment levels in subjects like English and Maths. Only 15% of young offenders achieve a grade 4 or above in English and Maths GCSEs compared to 58% of all pupils (Gov.UK 2022) and then of course, there is the additional burden of stigmatisation attached to their conviction. This frequently leads to a negative self-image and further behavioural issues.

Children involved in the criminal justice system often have attendance clashes with education due to court appearances and meetings with the YOT or time spent in custody. These are not things they can avoid; attendance is compulsory. This further widens gaps in learning and increases the stress of falling behind in studies, as well as the social aspect that schools provide. These children may struggle to maintain friendships or build new ones, as well as taking part in extracurricular school activities.

BUT it is not all doom and gloom. A criminal conviction is not the end of the academic road for children. Efforts to remedy the impact include providing support within schools, ensuring access to mental health services, and creating routes for reintegration into mainstream education, or even ensuring that children are in the appropriate educational setting for their specific needs, such as those with identified special education needs. The goal is to balance accountability with rehabilitation, supporting children to overcome their challenges and achieve positive educational outcomes.

There are services and support groups for children with convictions to positively support them on their journey, as well as providing therapeutic services to empower children to reach their full potential.

Of course, there are countless success stories of young offenders who have gone on to achieve great success such as the Actor Ben Bailey Smith, whose story, as well as others, can be read here. Equally the inspirational James Crystal, reformed his life and supports young people as a motivational speaker. His story can be found here.

So, what can we do to help?

We can continue to encourage and empower children to aspire for success in education. We can teach them that they have the potential to achieve their dreams - however large or small. We can refer them to support services and advocate for them.

If you are a child reading this, you can be a good mentor to your school friends. look out for signs of behavioural changes or signs that they are struggling. You can offer to listen to them and report all concerns to a trusted adult.

If you are a child or young person navigating the criminal justice system or know somebody who is, the links below can provide guidance and support:

Action for Children

Youth Justice Board for England and Wales


Lives not Knives

Key 4 Life

Support Line

Family Rights Group

James Crystal- Motivational speaker

Children and Young People Now Success story

About the author

Hetty Phillips

Hetty is one of our Education Coordinators at Fresh Start, bringing  experience as a teacher across mainstream education, SEN, SEMH schools, and prison education. She has supported both children and adults diagnosed with Autism, ADHD, and behavioural issues, as well as those with criminal convictions. Hetty holds a degree in Criminology and Social Policy.

Her skills lie in providing emotional guidance to help young people and she offers creative strategies to educational specialists to enhance student engagement and attendance in sessions.

To get in touch with a member of the Fresh Start in Education team, click here

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