POWER, KNOWLEDGE AND CHILDREN’S RIGHTS IN THE TEACHING
OF YOUTH JUSTICE PRACTICE
Faculty of Health and Social
Walton Hall, UK
In 1997 in the UK,
New Labour (the alternative branding of the Labour Party) swept to power and
proceeded to make some rather hasty changes to the youth justice system in
England and Wales, including the development of Youth Offending Teams and a new
non-departmental government body, the Youth
Justice Board (YJB), designed to coordinate the new youth justice system.
Recently, it has been acknowledged by some that these changes have not resulted
in a ‘better’ system. The paper outlines how the training of ‘youth justice
practitioners’ reflects the bigger picture of central control, the pursuit of a
contested ‘what works’ agenda, and
managerialism. It explores the consequent impact of this approach on the rights
of children caught up in the youth justice system as seen through the lens of
the power–knowledge nexus. This is followed by a broader examination of
the necessary theoretical foundations upon which such teaching and learning in
the youth justice field might be placed with reference to Nellis’ ‘overarching’
and ‘underpinning’ knowledge developed in the context of the Probation Diploma.
Finally, some tentative recommendations are made, concluding with some
potential challenges. These include the consequent impact these challenges
might have on improving children’s rights and reducing the use of custody for
children in the criminal justice system.
One of the aims of totalitarianism is not merely to
make sure that people will think the right thoughts, but actually to make them
less conscious. (Orwell 1946: 383)
Much has changed in the last 10 years in
the youth justice system of England and Wales, but with questionable benefit
(Goldson 2000; Goldson & Muncie 2006; Pitts 2001; 2005a). It is now broadly
acknowledged that after 10 years claims regarding the effectiveness of the
youth justice system have come under some criticism (Soloman & Garside
2008). However, this broad acknowledgement comes at a time when changes in
government structure, along with the influence of key ministers, may herald
further moves which, this time, may be in the right direction.
For the purposes of this paper, however, I
will focus on one of the major changes of the last few years through a lens of
the power–knowledge nexus in order to provide a context in which to
witness current youth justice practice pedagogy and to speculate as to its
future. Furthermore, I hope to focus on the process of ‘managerialism’ and its
relationship to power and knowledge:
[Individuals] are always in the position of
simultaneously undergoing and exercising power. They are not only its inert or
consenting target; they are also the elements of its articulation. (Foucault
As Garland (1990) reminds us, the concept
of power in the Foucauldian sense is not a property of individuals who have it
to use at their will, but rather an asymmetrical relationship of societal
forces. Moreover, power is also:
to be thought of as productive in effect rather than
repressive in so far as power shapes the actions of individuals and harnesses
their bodily powers to its ends. (Garland 1990: 138)
It is in this sense that I will consider
the relationship between the centrist–‘managerialist’ development of
youth justice in the last ten years and the consequent experience of
practitioners and ultimately the rights of children and young people in the
system. As a cautionary note, Foucault also suggests in Discipline and Punish that that an understanding of the ‘knowledge
– power- body-nexus’ is at the heart of an understanding of penality, but
in a more sinister sense. Thus, knowledge of the ‘subject to be controlled’ (in
this case young people and their rights) should to be ‘handled with care’ if
that knowledge is not to be corrupted and incorporated into processes of
surveillance and oppression.
The relationship between knowledge and
power in the context of the probation service has been examined by Robinson
(2001: 248), who exposed the risks of ‘over confidence’ in the knowledge base
of the so-called ‘what works’ agenda. She describes how there has been a growing disquiet regarding the development
of this agenda and warns of the effect of eroding professional judgment by
centralising prescribed methods of engagement which may not be as efficacious
as its supporters suggest.
More recently, Farrant (2006: 317) has
discerned an overarching ‘hegemonic masculinist approach to crime control and
offender management’ based on the ‘what works’ agenda. Both of these
explorations note the effect of a New Labour ‘modernisation’ project and
provide us with an alternative framework with which to understand them. So,
what does this have to do with the teaching of youth justice?
I once asked a group of
students to describe the difference between the way in which youth justice was
organised before 2000 and the way in which it is organised now. The students’
responses were extreme. For one group, the period before New Labour’s 1998
Crime and Disorder Act marked a time of inefficiency and confusion where the
‘victims of crime’ were placed firmly in the background – post-2000 had
been a renaissance with a flourishing restorative ideology and supportive
preventative interventions. For the other group, youth justice practice was in
serious decline, dominated by ‘tick box performance management’ that impeded
the real work of engaging with young people and was creating intense pressure
on the workforce, the ultimate manifestation of this being a reduction in the quality of the relationship between
workers and young people.
The latter view is supported, to some
degree, by Eadie & Canton (2003), who suggest that the dominance of risk
assessment in contemporary youth justice culture might displace a more
reflective approach to the work. Pitts (2001), too, has argued that
contemporary youth justice practitioners have become de-professionalised.
Furthermore, this process of ‘de-professionalisation’ connects to the distrust
of ‘professionals’ generally, a movement that has been growing for around 20
years. This demise goes hand in hand with both the rise of a culture of audit
and accountability – in which the government and the public need assurance
that workers are being suitably scrutinised, regulated and controlled –
and a rise in a ‘consumer society’ (Baudrillard 1998; Bauman 1998).
In the context of the recent attempts by
the Youth Justice Board (YJB) to drive forward the percentage of qualified staff
through the Professional Certificate in Effective Practice (PCEP) , it is little wonder that such confusion can arise. The ‘fetishism’ towards Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approaches and a non-critical, cursory
acceptance of the ‘principles of effective practice’ provide a potentially
limited and confusing picture to those practitioners new to the field.
The teaching of effective practice, or at
least the teaching of practice effectively, can help us to understand some of
the central tensions within the system. It may be helpful at this juncture to
reflect on how ‘effective youth justice’ was taught in England and Wales until
only a few years ago, before moving on to make a few suggestions about what
should be taught.
Certificate in Effective Practice (Youth Justice)
More than usual, the collection
of nautical metaphors and clichés used in the world of youth justice, boat
building, shipwrecks, and the abyss seem to have become inextricably linked in
this story, and I am still uncertain as to whether this should be taken as an
omen or whether it is just one of those coincidences that occur in life throws
from time to time.
While I was working at the University of Birmingham,
England, undertaking some freelance work, having been shipwrecked in the
Pacific a few months earlier, a note was pinned to my door giving details of an
adverterisement for trainers to deliver the Professional
Certificate in Effective Practice (Youth Justice) (PCEP) on behalf of an
organisation called Ecotec. A few of weeks later, when working for Warwickshire Police, I sent in the
required C.V., not least because I felt I had some experience in the field of
youth justice and enjoyed face-to-face teaching. After a fairly lengthy
interval of time, I quite unexpectedly received an invitation to attend a
two-day ‘training session’ based in a hotel just outside Warwick. The first
surprise for me was failing to recognise anyone in the group that I had known
from the ‘old youth justice days’. Most of the people gathered there seemed to
have had very little connection with that period in time. This puzzled me as I
had assumed that there would be a number of ex-colleagues and acquaintances who
would also find the idea of teaching on an ‘effective practice’ course both stimulating
The two-day training event ended up as a
24-hour ‘run through’ of what I later learned to be the three modules of PCEP.
At the end of the session we were invited add our names to a list if we were
still interested in delivering the course, although I later learned that most
of the negotiations between university representatives and potential trainers
appeared to have taken place in the bar during the course of the previous
evening. Despite this, and with a certain degree of persistence, I managed to secure an offer to teach
the course by the three English Universities.
course – de profundis
My thoughts on the course and indeed its
impact on practitioners are formulated as a consequence of a number of years of
direct delivery and my critique is thus from the abyss, as it were, rather than
from some external high point, looking down at the process. Essentially the
course, which was a 40-point credit bearing ‘certificate’, was delivered in
three taught modules between which was apportioned appropriate ‘study time’.
Normally, the taught part of the course was delivered in a hotel to students
from nearby YOTs or ‘secure establishments’. There were usually between 16 and
22 ‘participants’ who were given a ‘participant pack’ along with a ‘learning
portfolio’. Included in the pack was a participant folder, a study guide and a set of
‘topic readers’ which grew from 8 to 15 by the final years and represented the
15 Key Elements of Effective Practice. Broadly, the first module covered a brief overview of the youth justice system
as whole, its possible aims, a cursory glance at the ‘values underpinning the
system’ and some principles of effective partnership. The second module focused
almost exclusively on the ‘principles of effective practice’, referred to as
the ‘McGuire principles’ This second module is worth further consideration as
these ‘principles’ were, in essence, transferred across from the ‘what works’
agenda which still dominates probation practice and is the subject of much
criticism by academics and practitioners in the field. The third module dealt
with the preparation necessary for participants to undertake a mini audit using
the Effective Practice Quality Assurance
Framework (EPQAF) as a model.
Reflecting on the course, it seems clear to
me that there were a number of difficulties that might help expose some deeper
problems associated with the education of youth justice practitioners. However,
before exploring these deeper questions, I will list the difficulties
associated with the subject material.
In the course material there was a strong
focus on the ‘what works’ agenda and its development subsequent to Martinson’s
early work (1974) and also the subsequent emerging principles of ‘effective
practice’. However, there was little detail as to the finer grain of its
history in the juvenile context (Raynor & Robinson 2005). There was also
little exposure of the attendant problems associated with this ‘agenda’ in
relation to the teaching of probation officers. The leitmotiv of the course was a relentless presentation of a clear
resolution to the questions that went before concerning ‘what works’ in
preventing juvenile reoffending. Using the materials alone (including the 15
topic readers) it would be quite possible to gain the impression that a ‘holy
grail’ had been found. The recent cautionary lessons regarding the application
of ‘what works’ (Harper & Chitty 2005) and similar previous warnings were
disregarded (Pitts 2005b). Students might well have concluded that, contrary to
the research findings of Webster et al. (2005), further debate on the
prediction of ‘risk’ and ‘protective’ factors is unnecessary and that risk
assessment is a neutral, ‘value-free’ process. The presentation of the ‘McGuire
principles’ came across as an uncontested answer, rather than a contested or
developing process. The level of critique was minimal in terms of exposure to
In defence of this apparently simplistic
approach could be afforded the argument that there was a need to present
learning material at the ‘right level’ for students returning to the academic
world, but of course accessible material does not necessarily need to be
simplistic to be engaging. On the contrary, many students appeared to resent
the rather ‘one-sided view’ outlined in the course, not least the session
titled ‘The history and structure of the system’, which opened with the words
‘YOTs were established in 2000 ….’ (Ecotec 2003). Worse still, the historical
section was concluded one sentence later. (See also Pitts 2005b: 253, who
eloquently uncovered further ‘selectivity’ from the course.) This apparent
‘airbrushing’ of anything prior to the turn of the 21st century received much
criticism from many of those who had been practising in the latter part of the
previous century and had witnessed both the successes and failures of youth
justice over the last 20 years.
It would be wrong to give the impression
that the course was badly received by all students. Interestingly, many
students appeared to have gained a lot from the experience. The knowledge of
the ‘McGuire principles’ for some unlocked and improved a more focused approach
to programme design. Others found an introduction to ‘learning styles’ a
helpful way forward (although for many a more critical approach to their
application may have been more helpful – see Coffield et al. 2004). Some
found that their knowledge of the vocabulary of the Effective Practice Quality Assurance Framework (EPQAF) enabled them
to understand some of the requests to collect data from their managers or
‘performance specialists’. The process of learning this new vocabulary was
empowering. However, many students felt that the course was simply a means to
an end and found the level of academic criticality fell far short of their
previous academic experiences.
Whilst time naturally
erodes the finer details of memory, it helps expose the important from the
trivial. Following the course, I have been left with a feeling that an
improvement in the learning experience of youth justice practitioners is
necessary in order to protect the rights of children who are not just
‘mini-adults’ but have specific needs as children. The
‘minionising’ of compliant practitioners, persuaded into thinking they have
merely to operational ‘effective’ programmes, is a direct challenge to the
rights of the children with whom they work.
A curriculum for
Whereas some of the discussion presented
above might be regarded as a necessary venting of the spleen, the deeper
purpose is a foundation for enquiry that centres on how a curriculum for youth
justice might be selected and developed. One place to begin this discussion is
with an examination of the nature of expertise in youth justice practice. Like
much work in human services, it is characterised by messy ambiguity. Youth
justice practitioners work with young people who are often in difficult
circumstances and present intractable problems, conflicting demands and
uncertainty. This is a challenge of high uncertainty and high complexity that
must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, guided by a clear understanding of
how offending behaviour is constituted.
Nellis’ (2001) discussion of the Diploma in Probation Studies (DipPS) highlights similar issues around the challenges and tensions in the
construction of a curriculum to support expert practice. Nellis suggests that
in the construction of a curriculum there is not merely a need for an
administrative fit between what it means to be an effective practitioner and
the theoretical knowledge required to do this, but rather what matters more is:
fit—some sense of relationship, affinity or matching between what is
taught and learned in the university and in the agency, which respects the
strengths and missions of each. (Nellis 2001: 418)
Nellis’ account presents much of value in
our pursuit of a curriculum for youth justice workers. First, he is
particularly critical of the way that the DipPS curriculum was defined and
assessed partly in terms of an agenda of ‘Competence Based Education and
Training’ (CBET). This is an approach that resonates with the skills-based
agenda outlined by the Leitch Report,
and to a large extent, employer-based ideas of what is important to learn. With
notable prescience, Nellis suggests that CBET is not some small adjustment in
effective pedagogy but rather a major transforming influence on what it means
to be a thoughtful, critical practitioner. Quoting Usher, he presents the
competence-based agenda as part and parcel of the ‘impersonalism’ and
‘managerialism’ that is working to the detriment of the ‘Probation profession’,
an effect that is felt as acutely by the newly constituted professionals of
youth justice as it has been by some of the new wave of post DipPS Probation
People, like NVQs, become adaptable, a bundle of
functional competences attained and exercised according to the demands of the
market. They are commodified in the very process that commodifies learning.
(Usher 1997: 106, cited in Nellis 2001: 420)
Nellis’ criticism of
CBET is as much about the spirit of the agenda as the pedagogy. CBET subjugates
students’ personal needs or desire for authentic expression to the needs of the
organisation and for particular types of workers
. Nellis’ point is an important one. Under CBET
the student becomes a human resource to be moulded and shaped, not an agent
finding a sense of vocation and professional skill and identity through the
educative process. In a sense, the workplace becomes the purchasing client and
the student is the raw resource to be developed.
The second issue
outlined by Nellis is concerned with his
differentiation of the types of knowledge needed to provide the theoretical and
practical base for a reflective practitioner. This framework is an attempt to
clarify the types of knowledge necessary to develop specifically in terms of a
university–agency split. In this sense, the curriculum builds on the idea
of propositional knowledge, process knowledge and experiential knowledge. Nellis
describes the distinction thus:
This is expressly not a normative distinction, both
are of equal value, nor is it distinction between theory and practice, because
both underpinning and overarching knowledge each have elements of theory and
practice, different sorts of theory and different sorts of practice.
Underpinning knowledge is provided predominantly by the agency while
overarching knowledge is provided by the university—and that is the basis
on which a partnership between them should be built. (Nellis 2001)
It is important not to dismiss out of hand
‘managerialist’ knowledge. Targets, guidelines and protocols can help coordinate actions in complex
systems. Practitioners who are innocent of these organisational needs would
struggle to be effective by any definition of that term. Whilst Nellis suggests
both underpinning and overarching knowledge are needed, it is important for a
practitioner to realise that these two types of knowledge cannot be easily
separated, in the same way that competencies cannot be separated from the world
of meaning, judgement, innovation, and insight that surrounds them. Similarly,
evidence-based practice can imply (wrongly) that a separation of knowledge of
best practice is detached, free-floating from context, and thus separate from
any judgement about circumstances and so forth (see also Pitts 2005b).
So what should be the nature of the
overarching knowledge that would enable such a system to flourish and more
importantly to empower practitioners to flourish within it? There is a balance
to be struck here and it is tempting, in hypothetical terms, to ‘over-extend’
such a wish list. The primary focus of any such curriculum is the need to help
in the process of becoming an ‘effective practitioner’ rather than an academic
expert in the many potential fields of interest. The latter course could
actually have a disabling effect by swamping practitioners.
A fundamental aspect of the training of
youth justice practitioners must be to somehow capture what Nellis describes as
the ‘humanistic’ dimension. There is a need to address Godson & Muncie’s
(2006) ‘principled youth justice’ system, which is based on social and economic
policy, an understanding of poverty and inequality, and the engagement of the
‘universally social’, and yet is age-specific in the context of a justice
system. Working as a youth justice worker is not just a matter of addressing
risk factors but involves setting the behaviour of young in the context of
their life and subsequently attending to social, psychological and emotional
factors. To achieve this wildly ambitious aim we need to think carefully about
the learning experiences of students, the process of learning, and how best we
can equip students to be reflective practitioners rather than pay lip service
to the idea.
There is now a developing literature on the
consequences of ‘managerialist’ practice in the public sector (see above) and
specifically a literature that focuses on the possible impact that these processes
may have in respect to ‘professional engagement’ with young people. The nature
of this relationship has, in the recent past, been eclipsed somewhat by a focus
on ‘the principles of effective practice’ and the ‘what works’ agenda. The
principle of ‘Responsivity’ has, to some extent, become ‘second fiddle’ to
programme integrity. It is therefore necessary for the effective practitioner
to be aware of the potential impact of ‘relationship’ and ‘engagement’ (a time
consuming and difficult process to measure) and its potential erosion in the
context of unchecked ‘managerialism’. Second, practitioners may benefit from a
broader insight into the more general difficulties associated with the idea of
quality and performance in the context of managerialism.
Sociological and psychological criminological theory
In his insightful account of a move towards
a ‘post-autistic evaluative and rehabilitative ethic’ (2005b: 257), Pitts
suggests that the reason why so much effort was put into professionalizing
practitioners in the past was because one of the key functions of such
practitioners was to make difficult decisions. This remains the case today
– probably more so. A review of the evidence would suggest that there
never will be a simple menu of ‘intervention’ options available and
consequently practitioners will need to understand and analyse for themselves
the relationship between the ‘criminogenic’ risk and protective mechanisms that are at play. To
understand these mechanisms, both sociological and psychological perspectives
are required. To understand the frustrations of the recently missed targets of
the YJB, some knowledge of the debate around the dangers of prevention services to avoid
their potential iatrogenic effects is as important as knowledge of some ‘person-centred
principles of effective practice’. Some background in agency and structure
might help this understanding. Lastly, a knowledge that at least accepts the
definitional and aetiological problems of the term ‘crime’ could add
sensitivity to practitioners in the field.
To understand the youth justice system it
is also necessary to understand its history. There is no excuse to begin that
history in the year 2000. Whether an understanding the history of the youth
justice system informs effective practice is hardly contentious. Teaching
practitioners about what used to go on 150 years ago alerts them to the nature
of the juvenile offender, the tension between welfare and justice, relationship
between incarceration and social structure. From recent history of youth
justice there are perhaps just a few clues about the potential efficacy of both
custodial and non-custodial dispositions.
Social exclusion and social control
The relationship between certain sectors of
society and those that police them is not evenly balanced across England and
Wales. Even a superficial analysis of the juvenile custodial population reveals
that those who are incarcerated are not representative of the population as a
whole. Along with explanations that point clearly to racism, others include
poverty and social exclusion as significant determinants. If the system was
less obviously ‘unbalanced’ then perhaps these social structures could be
simply ignored, but in its current form, some reflection on the demography of
the ‘clients’ of the system seems to be another essential ingredient in
beginning to understand effective practice. This understanding would at least
disabuse practitioners from the notion that effective practice occurs in a
social vacuum. At best, it would help contextualise the idea of ‘criminogenic
Net widening and understanding of risk
The number of children in custody in
England and Wales has remained consistently high in the last eight years and is
higher than it was in 1998. The risk of drawing more children into the system
and their apparently inevitable rise through the ranks towards custody is
perhaps the greatest challenge facing the contemporary youth justice system.
The literature here is highly contested, but there appears now to be growing evidence
that younger people, with less serious convictions, are being sentenced to
custody, or put another way, like-for-like offences are being dealt with more
Victimology and ‘Restorative Justice’
Tony Blair’s attempts as the UK’s Prime Minister
to find the right ‘balance’ between the needs of victims and the need to
process the offender have experienced chequered success. The attempt to add
‘reparation’ to the Referral Order and the Victims
Code of April 2006 has done little to assuage public opinion that victims
get a raw deal. The promise of ‘Restorative Justice’ has also failed to take
purchase, not least because its ideology has often been lost in the
‘managerialist’ rush towards apparently unattainable targets and
misinterpretation of what reparation might mean in practice. Some background
knowledge, especially of the restorative ideal, seems appropriate.
Comparative youth justice
Lastly, it will be difficult to change the
status quo, the way things are done, and the outcomes of these interventions or
approaches if one has nothing in which to contextualise these speculative
changes. A focus on mainland Europe (including recent ‘accession countries’),
Australasia, and other jurisdictions, for example the United States
(specifically the indigenous peoples of these continents), could enable
practitioners to realise that certain ‘givens’ are indeed not (see Muncie &
These are interesting times for youth justice in England and Wales.
The last 10 years have witnessed a particular approach to government that has
direct consequences for both the youth justice system as a whole and, more
specifically, for youth justice practitioners. In turn, the actions of
practitioners directly impact on the lives of the children and young people
with whom they work. Recognising the link between power and knowledge in these
processes is essential if we are to influence any changes in practice within in
youth justice as it manifests itself in England and Wales.
However, this relationship between power and knowledge can work in a number of
ways. The following are three possibilities, although there are many more
- Firstly, centrist and managerial approaches to the teaching of
youth justice practitioners can limit the overarching knowledge necessary
to take professional and critical decisions based on holistic and informed
views (see Robinson 2001).
- Secondly, ‘knowledge–power’ can empower both
practitioners and the young people with whom they work. I believe such knowledge
should include knowledge of child development and the criminalisation of
young people. This could act as a counterpoint to the potentially sterile
and even questionable knowledge of ‘what works’.
knowledge–power systems can become part of a process that leads to
further surveillance and incarceration of young people. The development of
a number of pre-emptive interventions, the need for more and more
information on the lives of others deemed at risk of offending should set
alarm bells ringing.
Goldson & Muncie (2006) envisage a youth justice system made up
of diversionary tendencies characterised by the abolitionist and minimum
interventionist discourses that were so prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s. If
that is to be achieved then one factor that may contribute to the process must
be the effective training of practitioners, not just in ‘percentage throughput
terms’, but in terms of knowledge that will be conducive to thoughtful and
reflective practitioners; to borrow from the language of ‘managerialism’,
training that is ‘outcome focused’ in the widest sense of that term. Reliance
on an unquestioning acceptance of ‘what works’ runs the risk of rendering
invisible much important practice – the development of effectiveness can
be undermined by a mismatch between the managerial agenda of targets and
efficiency with the professional valuing of the more amorphous processes of
building and maintaining relationships.
The recent changes in the structure of
government departmental responsibility for youth justice may bring about
changes in the way in which young people in trouble are represented. This
itself may change the power–knowledge dynamic. On the other hand, such
changes may be simply empty rhetoric. Understanding the central importance of
reflective and knowledgeable practitioners is a step in the right direction and
would ensure that children’s rights are protected by developing ‘know how’ as a
counter-balance to the asymmetry of forces that exist between the young person
and their wider social environment. Addressing this asymmetry through the
education of practitioners is, I believe, a step that we must take.
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