Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

Professional Education in Youth Justice: Mirror or Motor?

Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

Professional Education in Youth Justice: Mirror or Motor?

Article excerpt


Dealing with youth crime and antisocial behaviour remains the subject of considerable concern in the UK and beyond. Furthermore, the degree of social construction, moral panic, stigmatisation and 'knee-jerk' retribution that surrounds the political and media representations of these issues has been fostered in the context of a globalised society. This, in turn, has accelerated the need for 'modernised' and productive practice delivered by informed, skilled and educated youth justice practitioners. There is thus a pressing need to provide an effective framework for the teaching of these 'informed practitioners', yet the urgency implied by such a rapidly changing environment may itself be counterproductive. This is because the development of higher order skills and the engagement in deep or even profound learning (Hay, 2007) takes time, both from the point of view of teaching and just as importantly, from the perspective of learning. The cluster of thinking skills such as evaluation, analysis, and understanding go well beyond the acquisition of simple knowledge.

The implementation of 'effective' practice by a knowledgeable and capable youth justice system has significant implications at a number of levels: micro (e.g. for the young person, victims); mezzo (e.g. for families, schools, communities); and macro (e.g. socio-economic and political benefits). We might therefore ask how individuals working in the youth justice system of England and Wales (YJS) come to be considered 'knowledgeable', 'educated' or possessors of 'expertise' in youth justice practice. Knight and Stout (2009) for example, in the context of Probation staff involved in risk assessment, have noted that 'The role of higher education within any framework remains essential if staff at all levels are to develop the skills to interrogate and analyse new information, and develop the skills of reflective and critical practice' (2009: 269).

We might also consider whether there are substantive differences between the respective 'youth justice educations' experienced by, on the one hand, professionals/ practitioners and, on the other, by traditional undergraduate youth justice students and indeed, if these differences do occur, whether they are legitimate. It is important to acknowledge at this stage that youth justice professionals are by no means a homogenous group. Their experience, expertise and qualifications can vary considerably from those 'seconded in' from Probation and Social Work, who have both professional qualifications and higher academic degrees, to those who have neither. The expertise of youth justice practitioners may lie in counselling, resettlement, substance misuse, outreach youth work, or be of a more general nature. Most importantly, we could ask what the central components of a professional education in youth justice might be- what 'knowledge', skills and abilities should be learnt, whose 'knowledge' should it be, who should deliver it, how and why?

The context of youth justice education in England and Wales

It could be argued that there has been a considerable polarisation in the teaching of youth justice in England and Wales since the inception of the Youth Justice Board (YJB) in 2000. From that time, youth justice teaching has divided into two pathways, one characterised by short-term, vocational, professional education and training modules (largely) sponsored by the YJB, the other, a more theoretical and critical grounding offered by university departments as part of traditional three-year degrees in the broader field of criminology.

This vocational-academic dichotomy exemplifies the epistemological and political schism within contemporary youth justice as a discipline in England and Wales, which can be described as a paradoxical 'war' between two sides who never engage with one another. On the one side we have the YJB, promulgating what might be characterised by some as an atheoretical, 'evidence-based', managerialist, quality-assured and practical/vocational position; on the other, a cadre of critical youth criminologists, highly sceptical of the academic merit, theoretical breadth and depth, evidential basis and ethical robustness of the YJB approach. …

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