Edinburgh research into youth crime and justice, led by alumna Professor Lesley McAra, has resulted in major changes within criminal justice systems both at home and overseas. The number of older teenagers currently incarcerated in Scotland is the lowest since records began. Fellow alumnus Jamie Feilden has formulated social-justice interventions that rescue young people from the criminal justice system through a transformative rural experience. Edit uncovers what drives them and how their efforts are changing lives.
Lesley McAra, Assistant Principal for Community Relations at Edinburgh, says she is “a proud alumna of the University”. As an academic, she always aims to conduct her research “with, in and for the community” and to use research evidence to promote and campaign for positive social and political change.
This spirit of producing socially useful research brought her to undertake the co-directorship of a research programme almost 20 years ago that has uncovered life-changing findings. The Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime, established with Edinburgh colleagues David J Smith and Susan McVie, is a longitudinal programme tracking the lives of 4,300 young people who started secondary school in Edinburgh in 1998.
“To date our findings show how widespread offending is during the teenage years – around 96 per cent of our cohort admitted to being involved in offending,” reveals Professor McAra, who is also Chair of Penology at Edinburgh Law School.
“Our study also highlights major biases in decision-making against young people who come from backgrounds blighted by poverty, in terms of who is excluded from school; who is charged by the police; who ends up on social work supervision; and who is imprisoned,” she continues. “We also discovered that social-justice interventions – those focused on education, health, housing and community – will in practice be more effective in reducing youth crime than any ‘short, sharp, shock’ initiative could ever be.”
Initially the findings have been challenging for both policy-makers and youth justice practitioners, and the study team has had to work extremely hard to persuade politicians of the need for reform. Lesley and her colleagues have found ingenious routes to getting these messages across.
“In addition to the production of more than 200 papers and presentations, we have used less traditional means of reaching a wider set of publics, including performing Edinburgh Fringe shows such as Hug a Thug which told the stories of prisoners and victims through poetry and song,” she explains. “I’ve also worked with storytellers from the Edinburgh-based Scottish Storytelling Centre, to narrate the life histories of cohort members (suitably anonymised) and used drama with community groups to explore the powerful impact of crime and justice issues on people’s lives and wellbeing.”
As a result of these efforts, the study has formed the evidence-base for recent changes to Scottish youth justice policy, focusing on early and effective intervention and diversion, via a ‘whole system approach’. These changes have brought about major reductions in the numbers of young people caught up in the justice system in Scotland, reducing the number of older teenagers who end up in prison to the lowest figures since records began. Findings have also been used with major success by Apex Scotland, a not-for-profit organisation that works with former offenders, as well as penal reform groups internationally, to underpin interventions to reduce school exclusion.
Elsewhere in the UK, fellow alumnus Jamie Feilden has taken a parallel approach to the problem of youth exclusion, which he experienced first hand working as a secondary schoolteacher in Croydon, following graduation from Edinburgh in 2003. Witnessing challenging behaviour in his secondary school environment, he also – personally – took on the idea of social-justice intervention.
Jamie’s own upbringing had been in a rural setting and he began to believe that there was a connection between bad behaviour in classes, low self-esteem of his pupils and a lack of access to the countryside.
“I came up with the idea for Jamie’s Farm because I thought that taking the most vulnerable students to a rural setting could affect some of their challenges,” Jamie explains.
Jamie’s Farm, the organisation that he now runs with a small team of therapists and farmers, offers young people on the margins of society a one-week residential experience that combines farming, family and therapy.
The now burgeoning charity started out small, and more than a little homespun. “In the early days it was all pretty rough and ready with kids sleeping on the floor on my mother’s living room of our family’s farm, but it was clear from the beginning that it worked,” Jamie tells us.
During the week-long visits to the farm, disadvantaged young people – typically between the ages of 10 and 16 – are involved with all aspects of agricultural life as part of the Jamie’s Farm community; mobile phones and sugary snacks are replaced with wellingtons, overalls and nutritious home-cooked food. In a single day, a young person may feed and muck out pigs before breakfast, chop some logs in their morning session, harvest vegetables and prepare dinner in their afternoon session, go on a daily walk after tea and then deliver a lamb after dinner.
Alongside these jobs, the team have designed a flexible programme of therapeutic sessions in order to support the young people to vocalise rather than act out challenges they face in their home lives. There is also an expansive follow-up programme to ensure that the impact created during the week lasts. This means engaging schools, teachers and families in supporting the young person to flourish, beyond their farm experience.
“In the first ever visit in 2006 we saw that the combination of farming, family and therapy could have a transformational effect on children’s behaviour and engagement,” says Jamie. “Seeing those first groups of children leave the farm a foot taller and taking more responsibility for themselves and their behaviour made me think this could work.”
Seeing those first groups of children leave the farm a foot taller and taking more responsibility for themselves and their behaviour made me think this could work.
As with any new venture things didn’t always run smoothly, and there were times when it looked as if the charity might not find a home. However, Jamie was able to borrow money from “amazing people” and purchase a permanent farm in 2010, which now forms the charity’s headquarters. “For me, buying the first farm was a big achievement,” says Jamie. “We managed to borrow £1.5 million on a turnover of less than £100,000. Engaging so many great supporters in this process was really exciting. Now I’m excited by the fact that we’re going from one farm to four, 450 children per year to 1,800, and keeping the amazing Jamie’s Farm culture alive. I have great colleagues and it is a privilege to do this work.”
In the school year 2015/2016 the farm’s reporting showed that 15 per cent of the referred children were looked after, 56 per cent claimed free school meals, 45 per cent were Black, Asian and minority ethnic, and 57 per cent were not on track in core subjects at school. All these groups have been identified by the UK’s Department for Education as at risk of under attaining academically or being excluded from school. Combined with a lack of opportunities to develop soft skills, this leads to a range of problems in adult life from relationships to employability.
In England, 99 per cent of young people who are permanently excluded leave school without the necessary qualifications needed to access the workplace. Furthermore, children who have been temporarily or permanently excluded go on to make up the majority of the prison population. It is estimated that if just one in 10 of these young people who are sentenced to go to prison could be turned around before getting to this stage, public services would save an estimated £100 million annually. As well as the rewards social-justice interventions have for wider society, Jamie is adamant that they bring personal rewards too. “We have these great moments where we make breakthroughs with really challenging kids. Those early days where we all pulled together and delivered a fantastic experience for kids who had never left the city were really powerful. I remember driving along in a beaten up old truck with kids singing along to Paul Simon and thinking ‘this is the best job in the world!’”
Jamie’s Farm is seeing promising results. In the academic year 2015/16, 82 per cent of the young people referred there for being at risk of exclusion, are no longer in this category six weeks on.
In the next three years the charity hopes to expand to four farms, in Bath, Hereford, Monmouth and Lewes, as well as establish a new kind of children’s home. These beautiful places have the potential to transform the lives of children from across the country. Jamie’s hope is that these farms will be the incubator for exciting and innovative ways to support young people.
For Lesley McAra, the University community of alumni and friends can function as a force for positive societal transformation. For Lesley personally, this means putting academic research and teaching in the service of the community – at home and internationally: “In my current role as Assistant Principal, I have become aware of the wonderful work of our students, our staff and our alumni which is of direct benefit to the community. I hope others feel inspired to share their stories of impact or to become more involved. Together we can make a difference.”