If children in care offend, should we lock them up?

As an education director, I rarely considered individual children, instead dealing with them statistically.

The names of individual children only crossed my desk when children in care had been excluded. As a corporate parent, I always spoke personally to the head teacher, which, over time, had the effect of reducing the exclusion rate. This may simply have been because the schools were trying harder because they knew someone important was concerned. But the effect was real, and many of those children did better than if they had been excluded.

When I became a director of children’s services, I started to have more detailed information about children in care, and to understand their stories and the pressures they faced. I also learned how hard social workers strive to make a difference, but how very hard it is to turn around children’s lives. That’s one of the key reasons why I supported the integrated approach to children’s services, with all agencies – schools, social care, health services, youth justice – being jointly held to account together for outcomes.
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But we are still far from getting it right. For example, I applaud the decision to retain the Youth Justice Board, as it supports joined-up practice in its advice to ministers. But the impact of the youth justice system is pretty uneven, with young people in poverty or in care suffering dramatically worse outcomes. Almost a third of young people in young offenders’ institutions are in care or care leavers, and another third have been on the social care radar. The evidence is that incarceration does not work, with three in four young people reoffending within a year of release.

So this is not a time for the YJB to breathe a sigh of relief, but for it to make a real push to use the statistical evidence and individual stories to achieve a sustained improvement in the reality for young people who offend. The YJB proposal to make local authorities responsible for the cost of youth custody is a direct incentive to promote alternatives to custody. That’s an important first step, but it’s not enough. Custody, like exclusion, should become the exception, not the rule.

John Freeman CBE is a former director of children’s services and is now a freelance consultant  Read his blog at cypnow.co.uk/freemansthinking