Labels never changed anything

7th March 2008 at 00:00

In our series on outsiders who are close to education, Ewan Aitken talks to Susan McVie about her work with youth offenders

Susan McVie was still typing when I entered her small office. Forget unhurried academia, this is someone with more to do than the hours of the day allow. Given that she is trying to make sense of the life choices of more than 4,000 teenagers - whom she has been interviewing for around 10 years as to why they have chosen to break the law or not - it is no wonder she is a woman under pressure.

Mrs McVie is co-director of the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime, a longitudinal study of youth offending which has been based at Edinburgh University since 1998, when tracking began of the entire first- year intake to Edinburgh secondary schools.

She is a product of three primaries and two secondaries, from Eyemouth to Perth. Despite the peripatetic nature of her schooling, she recalls it as the best days of her life, because it provided "a stability when home was not stable. I could be the same as others, which was not the case at home".

Moving schools so often taught her the huge variations in what they offer. In one, she perceived herself as "doing OK"; another saw her at "the bottom of the pile, feeling really stupid". Her reaction was to grab the opportunity to work harder and do better, but her concern remains that many parents think that as long as their children are at school, they will do OK.

Mrs McVie rejects any notion that this is an argument for reinforcing parental choice, which should be for "extras" such as Gaelic, not for sending children to a "better school".

She says: "Parental choice won't give us the level playing field for every child's needs."

Children's backgrounds will often mitigate against them so much that simply going to school in another area won't solve the fundamental problems they face, she suggests. They will face labelling in their new school and be seen as having rejected their neighbours and peers.

Labelling is a key issue for Mrs McVie. For example, those labelled as white males from poorer areas are more likely to be seen as potential criminals, and so are picked up more by the police. And they are more likely to end up offending (60 per cent of children picked up by the police are convicted of a crime by the time they are 19).

Mrs McVie says schools must avoid being part of that process, using pejorative remarks like "you are just like your brother" or "I knew your sister". School exclusions are the strongest indicator of conviction by the age of 19.

She says: "Police and teachers have to act over crimes or inappropriate behaviour, but repeated targeting means that, even if young people reduce their offending, they aren't allowed to change."

She says schools vary in how they deal with difficult pupils. Some teachers have the right personality for the job. But "really good teachers who can manage difficult kids end up in management, far away from the kids who need them".

Schools are often the one place of stability in a young person's life. But the right adults must be with them when their personal crisis spills out into the classroom.

Yet, Mrs McVie acknowledges, schools cannot sort this out themselves. She would, if possible, filter out cash from the criminal justice system and spend it on schools, supporting complete regeneration.

She argues that just as one kid getting out to another school won't sort the problem, so targeting particular families simply leads to more labelling. Resources need to be across the board, so that those who need it most get caught up in a change that involves everyone.

Mrs McVie is deeply critical of political targets for ASBOs, which she regards simply as an attempt to prove bad behaviour is being dealt with. They label and so mitigate against change.

She knows that something needs to be done for victims of crime but believes that acting in a way that excludes will not bring change.

It should begin with parents, but we are "too private about parenting", in fear of being labelled a failure.

"We need to help everyone, so those who need it most don't feel excluded," she says. "The aggregate effect changes cultures at a street as well as a community or city level."

PROFILE

1968: Born Edinburgh

1980-86: Perth High; Eyemouth High

1986-87: Napier University, department of secretarial studies

1987-91: Napier University, department of biological sciences

1991-92: Edinburgh University, school of law

1992-97: Research officer and senior research officer, criminological research branch, the Scottish Office

1998-to date: Senior research fellow, school of law, Edinburgh University and co-director of the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime

Leader of the CJ-Quest Network in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research; member, Scottish Government's Scottish Crime and Justice Survey Technical Advisory Group; member, Scottish Government's SCOTSTAT board and the SCOTSTAT crime and justice committee; member, methodological working group of the International Self-Report Delinquency Study.

Photograph: Gareth Easton.

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