Nine criticisms of the theory that school exclusions are to blame for knife crime

Last week, senior police chiefs wrote to Theresa May arguing that there was a link between the increase in the number of formal school exclusions and ‘off-rolling’ (where heads informally get parents to withdraw their children, without them being formally recorded as ‘permanently excluded’) and an increase in knife crime.

The theory is that those excluded or off-rolled are more likely to ‘drift’ because they are less effectively cared for and monitored in alternative provision institutions. The problem is believed to be especially bad for those who are off-rolled. When a pupil is off-rolled, the parents are responsible for finding alternative provision, and it is their kids who are much more likely to end up out of education altogether.

If we look at the stats, there does seem to be a correlation between the increase in school exclusions and the increase in knife crime:

School exclusions have been increasing since 2013

Knife crime has been increasing since 2015

And regionally:

HOWEVER, it is a well-known mantra in sociology that correlation doesn’t mean causation, and there is very good reason to think that this is the case here.

Numerous commentators (see below for links) have criticised the police for suggesting there is a causal link between the increase in exclusions and the increase in knife crime, and here’s a summary of why we should be critical…

Nine criticisms of the ‘school exclusions cause knife crime’ theory

  1. For starters, even with the above crude statistics there isn’t a perfect correlation – it’s true that London has a higher exclusion rate and knife crime rate than any other city, but then the West Midlands has a higher knife crime rate than Yorkshire and Humber, but a lower exclusion rate.
  2. The above data only includes formal exclusions, not off-rolling, so we don’t get a full picture (there are validity issues) – true, it might be more likely that someone who is off-rolled turns to knife crime compared to someone who is formally excluded, but I these figures don’t show us the off-rolling.
  3. This government report from June 2018 which examined the relationship between educational background and knife crime found that ‘knife possession rarely followed exclusion’.
  4. There may be another cause behind both ‘being excluded from school’ and ‘being convicted of knife crime’ – possibly rooted further in the past of these individuals, such as their having come from a troubled family and/ or having experienced neglect or abuse during their childhood.
  5. It is unfair to blame schools for excluding children in greater numbers as they have been hit by 10 years of Tory funding cuts – schools actively educate about not getting involved in knife crime, but have become less effective at dealing with ‘troubled kids’ because they now have fewer resources to help them do so.
  6. The fact that someone has previously been excluded from school may make it more likely that they are going to get a knife-crime conviction – being excluded from school puts you on the police radar and doesn’t sit well with judges and juries. It could be that there are proportionally just as many people who have not been excluded from school who commit knife crime, but they just don’t appear in the official statistics because they are less likely to get caught and convicted.
  7. Back to underlying causes, it’s possible that a ‘deeper’ reason lying behind why people who are excluded from school are also more likely to appear in the knife crime conviction figures is because they are victims of discrimination by the system – males, the poor, and African Caribbean children are more likely to appear in both the exclusion figures and the knife rime conviction figures – it could be that both are caused by a sense of injustice at being excluded in the first place.
  8. The stats available to us tell us nothing about the life-histories, or the journies people take from being excluded (or not) to knife-crime. This could be a more complex few years than we imagine, and these possibly diverse journies are simply not going to be unveiled by crude statistical analysis. The data simply isn’t there!
  9. Finally, there are number of other variables that cause knife crime to increase – the changing nature of drug-dealing (county lines), and cuts to police funding come to mind as being two of the most obvious. These would somehow need to be factored in to any ‘causal’ equation.

In conclusion it’s a well-known mantra in sociology that correlation does not mean causation, and this particular topic is a great one to use to illustrate this.

To my mind there are so many problems with maintaining the causality argument here that the only possible reason anyone would try to make it in the first place is to distract attention away from all the other social problems that correlate with the increase in knife crime – the kind of problems government policies either exacerbate or can do little to combat.

Relevance to A-level Sociology: this is a great topic that bridges education, methods and crime!

Sources not already linked above

Huffington Post – Don’t blame school exclusions for rise in knife crime

The Guardian – Knife crime and exclusions are a symptom of wider malaise.

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