When you consider the complexity of adolescence and the transition to adulthood the road that young people travel is bordered by opportunity and, depending on choices made, taking those opportunities can lead to both positive and negative outcomes.
The Alcohol, Offending and Deprivation project deliberately set out to explore in detail with young people the impact of choices made and the antecedents that may have influenced those choices. For example their lived experience of school and or a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) with an inquiry into bullying as victim or perpetrator, the environment, where they live, and their experiences of alcohol. Specifically was there a causal relationship between school, environment alcohol and offending?
We wanted to hear their stories. What we heard was remarkable, it was enlightening, it was informative but perhaps more than that it was moving. In short it was a privilege.
In preparation we spent a lot of time crafting the questions we wanted to ask with attention on them being non-intrusive, sensitive, and to enable young people to talk about their experiences.
As soon as we began the process of interviewing the openness and honesty of those we spoke to was notable. We deliberately applied some of the principles of appreciative inquiry, this enabled young people to reflect and to consider a different future, this aspect was telling. It allowed those we interviewed to tell their stories in the context of change and insight. It was the insights shared that told a more articulate story than we had imagined.
The young people readily recognised the impact of choices they had made and equally acknowledge both culpability and where they had been let down. That distinction was important as we spent time with people who recognised the impact of their actions, who had resisted becoming a victim, who didn’t blame others and tellingly admitted that what they had done was wrong. They accepted responsibility, and hidden within that acceptance was a tangible sadness and regret.
For us it became apparent, when listening to the stories, that many opportunities had been missed to influence these young people in a way that could have diverted them from the paths they taken. Often, this was within the education system. We are in no way blaming schools. As practitioners we work in schools, with teachers, and fully empathise with the conflicting demands and tensions in equipping young people for their future lives. But there is a disjuncture between providing what certain young people need to make the most of their education and behaviour management; often the primary focus rapidly becomes their behaviour without an analysis of cause. The vast majority of the young people we spoke to were removed from school as a result of their behaviour and placed in a PRU, invariably this was at KS3.
It was no surprise that when asked what they would do differently the interviewees all said they would have concentrated, worked harder and focused on their learning. We were left with a strong sense that these young people deserved a second chance. One young man shared that he has books and books of poetry and writing under his bed, reflections on his life that yes, includes violence, but he can write, he can articulate himself and tells stories, that talent requires nurturing. Would we have become aware of this without taking the time to craft our questions? Similarly a young woman described how she wanted to train to be a vet or at the very least work in an environment where she had a responsibility to care for animals. We are all capable of making mistakes and in the context of youth offending the costs are high to both perpetrator and victim, and we don’t deny that. But let’s not forget that potential is an innate quality that exists in all of us. It is our hope that this research will serve as reminder of the fragility of childhood and early adolescence and our collective responsibility to nurture potential in all its forms, and that we must not give up looking for it; crafting the questions to unlock the envisioned future.
All of the young people we interviewed were involved in the youth justice system, they had all committed crimes of varying degrees and seriousness including violent crime. They had all had a negative experience of education and had misused both legal and illegal substances including alcohol, cannabis and other drugs. They were all in mid to late adolescence, a number were of school age. All were able to offer an analysis of the factors that had impacted them including their living environment, home life and their experience of bullying as either perpetrator of victim. We must not view the lived experience of young people through a single lens, it is a kaleidoscope and as such our focus must be on all the facets of the image it presents us with.
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