Research into practice

A scheme in Hertfordshire to reduce the risk of social exclusion and offending among young people could become a model for preventive programmes elsewhere.

The Young Citizens Project was set up to:

  • Identify and work with young people whom two or more agencies were concerned were most at risk of becoming disaffected and offending.
  • Identify blockages in the systems that serve young people, their families or carers, and peers, and establish collective working practices across the main agencies.

Jointly funded between 1997 and 2002 by the Youth Justice Board and Hertfordshire County Council, which now solely funds it, the project works individually and with groups of 10 to 17 year olds and their families. It intervenes in cases of family conflicts, parenting problems, offending or antisocial behaviour, educational problems and aggressive behaviour.

As many of the young people engaged in the project had not offended, re-offending rates would not provide a measure of effectiveness for this programme. More usefully, changes over time (as reported by the views of young people, their parents and others), school attendance, attitudes at school and so on could be analysed to gauge effectiveness.

An important innovation in the project was consultation meetings with parents, young people and relevant professionals. These helped to consider ways to minimise risk factors for the young person, from a needs-led perspective.

Those who took part in the project’s parenting programmes evaluated them positively. Most attended voluntarily, while some had been placed on parenting orders by a youth court. Some had initial fears that they would be blamed for their children’s behaviour.

The groups helped parents deal with feelings of isolation. They were able to encourage new ways of dealing with their children within an accepting and encouraging environment. This led to improvements in talking with and listening to their children, and persuading them to respond to boundaries. Children reported their parents as being “less angry”.

To gain the views of young people, focus groups and individual interviews were used. Activities and anger management groups were well received, but the most important element for the young people was the nature of the relationships with project workers. This provided comments such as “I can talk with/trust/ have confidence in them”. They perceived they had received positive help to deal with, for example, family conflicts, getting back into school, preparing themselves for college, work or independent living and their problematic attitudes to police or teachers.

The research included interviews with representatives of other agencies, and most mentioned only positive outcomes.

Overall, the research showed that the project developed valuable interventions and services, as evaluated by parents, young people and other agencies, which would otherwise have been unavailable. It also showed the importance of voluntary, non-judgmental project interventions, with a take-up rate of more than 90 per cent. It confirmed the positive work of the project in “gluing” together and co-ordinating activities from different agencies.

In a period when there is much concern about social exclusion and youth disaffection, the project programme offers a model for some of the more effective elements of preventive schemes.

Brian Littlechild is associate head, department of health and social care, University of Hertfordshire. Tom Rees is assistant director, youth justice services, Hertfordshire County Council.

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