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How does compulsory school attendance affect youth violence?

Keeping young people in education can provide them with protection from crime as well as limiting opportunities for them to engage in criminal activities. But a policy of raising the age of compulsory attendance may also concentrate violent or criminal behaviour in schools.

In many countries, youth crime is a significant policy issue. Around half of children aged 13 to 15 around the world, approximately 150 million, suffer from peer-to-peer violence in and around school, according to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF).

The same source also states that 37% of youth aged 13 to 15 years were bullied at least once in the UK in the 2017/18 school year (latest data available).

Despite shocking figures such as these, surprisingly little is known about the school experience of young people or about how interactions with the youth justice system can affect young offenders by either improving or worsening their educational performance and/or their trajectory of committing criminal offences.

Compulsory school attendance is seen as one means of keeping pupils busy, off the street and away from crime. But this can concentrate problems within the school premises. (For discussion of links between education and crime, see, for example, Anderson, 2014; Åslund et al, 2015; Bell et al, 2022; Huttunen et al, 2019; and Lochner, 2020.)

What does the evidence tell us?

One study indicates that compulsory school attendance can potentially raise the risk of young people displaying violence on school premises (Beatton et al, 2020). This research uses an anonymous administrative dataset from Australia that matches education and criminal records from Queensland’s department for education and the Queensland police from 2003 to 2014.

To identify the effect of compulsory school attendance on in-school violence, the study empirically examines the effect of the ‘earning or learning’ reform enacted in 2006 in Queensland, which mandated one additional year of compulsory schooling from 16 to 17 years of age.

The research shows a significant and positive effect of the reform on disciplinary actions for violent misconduct in school among pupils exposed to the policy.

Indeed, estimates show that the count and risk of violent school disciplinary sanctions at ages 16 and 17 increased by around 15% and 13% respectively, while it did not affect police records of violent offences at the same age.

The reform also reduced both property and drug offences in police records at ages 16 and 17 and ages 18 to 20, but it did not alter the records of property or illicit substances misconduct in school.

An increase in violent school disciplinary sanctions also emerged among young people aged 15, who were subject to the same legislation governing compulsory schooling before and after the reform, according to the study. This in turn suggests that there was a contagion effect of violence among young pupils in school.

What are the policy implications?

Research into violent offences in schools is important as they can be particularly costly for the victims. If schools are not secure settings to study and prepare for the future, young people may suffer the consequences of such violence for their entire lives.

Ensuring that schools are safe and that pupils do not feel threatened within the school premises appears imperative for education policy.

Compulsory school attendance has the potential to offer protection to young people. It can decrease the opportunities for them to engage in nuisance crimes; it can make young people more patient and forward-looking; and it can increase their employment chances in adulthood.

All of these factors are likely to lie behind the crime-reducing effect of education that has been documented extensively in economics research.

Nonetheless, the impact of school attendance is not the same for all types of crimes. While some crimes, such as shoplifting, cannot be committed in schools, others, for example, violent offences, can potentially occur, and in fact they do seem to occur, on school premises.

For school to be productive, it has to be a safe place where pupils can grow and learn. Developing an understanding around the school experience of many young people who suffer from peer-to-peer violence in and around school worldwide is a first step towards the formulation of effective policies that can address this issue and make schools safe and effective.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

  • Tony Beatton, Queensland University of Technology
  • Michael P. Kidd, RMIT University
  • Stephen Machin, London School of Economics
  • Dipa Sarkar, Queensland University of Technology
  • Matteo Sandi, Catholic University of Milan and Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science
Author: Matteo Sandi
Photo by Caiaimage/Robert Daly for iStock
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