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Youth custody: who ends up there and how does it affect their later lives?

There are severe long-term consequences for young people in the UK who spend time in youth custody, the majority of whom are boys. Those with very low grades, in special education facilities and with additional educational needs are also more vulnerable to ending up in youth custody.

A very small number of young people – about four in 1,000 boys – enter youth custody in the UK between the ages of 16 and 18. The consequences for these individuals are severe. They spend an average of seven months in youth custody and such incarceration has been related to negative outcomes in the longer term.

Apart from the negative effects for young people themselves, this is expensive for the public purse. In response to a parliamentary question, the cost given in July 2021 for youth custody ranged from £119,000 per place per year in a youth offender institution to £271,000 for a secure children’s home (House of Commons Library, 2022). It would be in the private and public interest to prevent individuals from having to enter in the first place.

Recent research looks at the educational influences and labour market outcomes from being in youth custody. The study, which took place within a larger project funded by the Nuffield Foundation (2022), uses linked administrative data for children in England to describe the key pathways into and out of custody. It estimates how aspects of schooling affect the probability of being imprisoned, and beyond school, it assesses the impact of prison on subsequent labour market outcomes.

Among the findings is a strong link between school exclusion and peers’ academic ability on the probability of entering youth custody. The study also shows that spending time in youth custody has a significant negative impact on future employment and earnings.

How do boys entering youth custody perform at GCSE?

The vast majority of those in youth custody are boys (94%), so this analysis is for boys only. To answer the question, recent research uses data from the National Pupil Database linked to the National Client Caseload Information System (NCCIS) for those who did their GCSE exams in the academic years 2011/12 to 2013/14 (Machin et al, 2023).

The study looks at whether qualifications at age 16 affect the probability of entering youth custody. Many of those entering youth custody do not even have an entry for GCSE English or maths (see Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1: GCSE grades in English or English language (boys only)

Source: Authors’ calculations based on NCCIS data and KS4 data (Machin et al, 2023).
Note: The x-axis shows the fraction of students falling into each qualification grade for GCSE English/GCSE English language. A further 15% of those in youth custody have other types of English entry. This still leaves 45% with no entry at all.

Figure 2: GCSE grades in maths (boys only)

Source: Authors’ calculations based on NCCIS data and KS4 data (Machin et al, 2023).
Note: The x-axis shows the fraction of students falling into each qualification grade for GCSE maths. A further 5% of those in youth custody have other types of maths entry. This still leaves 30% with no entry.

As many as 45% of those who subsequently enter youth custody have a missing entry for English (including those who take a non-GCSE English subject in Year 11). This share is 30% for maths.

Where there is an entry, those who go into youth custody at age 16 or 17 are very likely to have received very low grades relative to other boys attending state schools. Adding up those who either have a missing entry (including non-GCSE subjects), no award or a fail in GCSEs, this comes to 66% for English and 78% for maths.

There is a correlation between entry and grades in GCSE English and maths, and the probability of ending up in youth custody at age 16 or 17. But as so many people destined for youth custody are concentrated at the bottom of the distribution or not entered at all, there are limits to what can be said about whether improving skills at age 16 would reduce the probability of entering youth custody.

It is very likely that the reasons why people end up in youth custody are similar to the reasons why they are not even entered for exams (or fail the exams), and that the correlation between these two things represents the influence of those other factors.

In a quantitative study relying on administrative data alone, it is not possible to say much about what these other factors might be. Nonetheless, there are insights from some simple descriptive analysis.

What are the personal characteristics of those entering youth custody?

There are very striking differences between the personal characteristics of boys in youth custody at age 16 or 17 compared with the rest of the male population who were in Year 11 at the same time.

Those who enter youth custody are much more likely to have been eligible to receive free school meals when at school (40% relative to 15% in the rest of the sample).

Although like the rest of the population, they are more likely to be White British than any other ethnicity, Black African or Black Caribbean young people are over-represented: 6% and 5% of those observed in youth custody at ages 16-17, respectively, are Black African or Black Caribbean relative to 2.8% and 1.4% among other boys).

They are less likely to speak English as a first language than others – although the differences here are not as striking. They are also much more likely to be classified as either having a statement of special educational needs (SEN) or having ‘School Action Plus’ as a SEN category. There is much less difference in the more basic ‘School Action’ SEN category.

Taken as a whole, 75% of those boys ending up in youth custody at age 16 or 17 were designated under a special needs category while at school (usually a more serious one). This figure is only 25% among other boys, of which about half received the more serious designation of School Action Plus or an SEN statement.

This very big correlation between SEN and the probability of ending up in youth custody is also reflected in the institution attended when in secondary school. A high percentage of boys who subsequently went into youth custody attended pupil referral units (26%), community special schools (11.6%), alternative provision (9%) or secure units (3.4%). The proportion attending these school types in the rest of the sample is very small – just 4% for all these types of institution collectively.

It seems likely that the type of complex needs causing students to enrol in such institutions or receive a serious type of SEN designation are also behind non-entry or very poor grades at GCSE and the eventual outcome of youth custody at age 16 or 17. Of course, there are many more students classified as SEN or in a special type of institution than those who end up in youth custody.

Do entrants to youth custody perform worse in primary school?

Attainment in primary school at age 11 in English and maths tests (at Key Stage 2) was already much worse for those who end up entering youth custody.

Although there is a negative correlation between achievement at age 11 and ending up in youth custody, about half of such boys had met the government’s expected level in English or maths at that time, many of whom did very badly in exams at age 16 (if they were entered at all).

This suggests that for many, problems either emerge or become evident in early or middle adolescence.

What is the association between grades at GCSE and youth custody?

The analysis shows that most of the correlation between specific grades and the probability of entering youth custody is driven by variation among those receiving grade F or lower (or non-entry) – the bottom end of the distribution.

This is unsurprising given the descriptive statistics discussed above. When full controls are added, there is no association between getting either grade D or E (relative to a grade C) and the probability of later entering youth custody. But there is an association at levels below that, even with controls.

This is consistent with educational achievement influencing this outcome. But the analysis mainly serves to highlight that there are likely to be common unobserved factors influencing both non-entry/failing GCSE and entering youth custody.

It is certainly plausible that enabling young people to achieve a better education would help to keep them out of youth custody. But the analysis suggests that it might be very challenging to do so given the significant vulnerabilities faced by this group of young people and reflected in their characteristics.

Given the large number of boys in youth custody with either a serious special needs designation when at school and/or being in a special type of educational institution for their secondary education, a useful direction for future research would be to investigate the efficacy of the types of intervention that occur within these settings.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

  • Stephen Machin, LSE
  • Matteo Sandi, Cattolica University of Milan and CEP
  • Richard Dorsett, University of Westminster
Authors: Stephen Machin, Sandra McNally and Jenifer Ruiz-Valenzuela
Image by bodnarchuk on iStock
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