The Youth Justice Board commissioned an evaluation1 of two projects run by Include, a national charity that aims to provide alternative education or training for young people (aged 16-18) who have either been excluded or have not attended mainstream education for some time.
The evaluation looked to establish whether either project reduced the risk of crime by reintegrating these young people into education, training and employment.
One of the main findings was that “a highly significant factor in reducing offending behaviour and in promoting an increased sense of well-being and self-esteem (the two being inextricably linked) was the one-to-one working relationship between the individual and the project manager”.
Of the 11 young people who were interviewed, all but one had suffered an unhappy, difficult and stressful social life. Negative experiences at school, together with other factors, created in most of the interviewees a fear and dislike of social situations. This led further to a lack of development of social skills.
However, since participating in the programme, the students’ social interactions had improved considerably. They found that the experience of being welcomed and being part of a small group, plus the combination of formal education with positive social experiences (such as days out and project work), contributed to their increased sense of social ease.
The two outstanding themes of the research centred on their positive relationships with staff and the improved confidence that education and training had given them. Nearly all students identified the biggest plus as the care and support they had received from project staff and, in particular, the project manager.
The students’ experience of this relationship of trust overcame the anxiety and nervousness that most of them felt at the beginning of the programme. They said that “the laid-back atmosphere” and “being treated like adults” encouraged and motivated them. Most mentioned maths, English and IT as areas of most improvement in their formal education. However, the help and support they received in other areas, for example with housing and other practical matters, was also a crucial part of their experience.
They also attributed better health in general to a much-reduced misuse of drugs and alcohol. The reasons given for reduced use included less contact with “undesirables” and more of an interest in building a future.
The research clearly indicates that the empathy of staff is more important than the content of the course and that trust and empathy are all-important. The young people report that the daily sense of feeling safe, secure and supported was fundamental in being able to achieve a sense of achievement and social inclusion. They were thus reluctant to harm or break this by re-offending.
However, the key findings seem to contradict the main direction of current policy, which lays great emphasis upon the need to exclusively address criminal factors, rather than take a more holistic view, as such an approach does not acknowledge the complexities of these young people’s daily social reality. Also the government’s move towards cognitive-based “think first” programmes, where content and structure are standardised, with little or no emphasis on the worker and client relationship, may be mistaken.
It would seem that the relationship with the project manager provided the opportunity for these young people to bridge the gap between their exclusion and regaining inclusion.
Vicky Harris is practice teaching programme director, school of social work and psychological studies at UEA>
1 Vicky Harris, Terri Van Leeson and June Thoburn, Evaluation of the Post Sixteen Projects for Include, Norfolk and Brent, University of East Anglia, 2002