1. Main points

  • 1.5% of 23- to 24-year-olds who attended school in England had received a custodial sentence by the end of 2017; a further 12.2% had received a non-custodial sentence or caution.
  • Young adults who received custodial sentences had lower levels of educational attainment, with 36.9% achieving the expected level of English and maths by the end of key stage 2 compared with 53.0% of their peers with non-custodial sentences or cautions, and 72.4% of those without criminal convictions.
  • A large share of young adults who received custodial sentences were identified as vulnerable during childhood; 41.7% were children in need (CIN) and 17.6% had been children looked after (CLA).
  • Despite high levels of vulnerability among those who received custodial sentences, receiving a custodial sentence remains unusual; 92.2% of CIN and 84.9% of CLA did not subsequently receive a custodial sentence.
  • More than half (52.5%) of young adults who received custodial sentences had been persistently absent during schooling, compared with 35.9% of those with non-custodial sentences or cautions; persistent absence was lowest among those with no criminal convictions (10.9%).
  • Nearly three-quarters (72.2%) of those who had a custodial sentence had received a fixed exclusion compared with half (50.3%) of those with non-custodial sentences or cautions, and 9.0% of those with no criminal convictions.
  • Young adults who received a custodial sentence by age 23 to 24 years are overwhelmingly male (92.6%); in addition, 68.6% of those receiving a non-custodial sentence or caution were male.
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2. Contact with the criminal justice system

By the end of 2017, 1.5% of people born in the academic year ending 1994 and educated in England had been given a custodial sentence. This means they had been found guilty of a criminal offence and punished with time in a prison, young offender institution, or other secure setting.

A further 12.2% had convictions or cautions not resulting in custodial sentences, instead receiving punishments such as a fine or community service (non-custodial sentences) or a caution. The remaining 86.2% did not have criminal convictions recorded in England and Wales.

Throughout the analysis it is important to note that, although a large percentage of the group that had received a custodial sentence might have certain characteristics or experiences, most people with that characteristic will not have received custodial sentences. For example, although more than half the people with custodial sentences received free school meals (FSM), the majority of FSM recipients never received a custodial sentence.

The analysis shows that large shares of the group that went on to receive custodial sentences had complex lives during their education. The overlaps between characteristics and forms of vulnerability, and their relationship with different outcomes will be explored in greater depth in subsequent publications. This article reports descriptive statistics and does not imply causation nor takes additional contextual factors into account. It does not make policy recommendations.

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3. Educational attainment at key stage 2 and key stage 4

At both key stage 2 (KS2, end of primary school) and key stage 4 (KS4, typically GCSE stage), attainment was lowest among those who went on to receive custodial sentences, increasing for people who had non-custodial sentences, and highest among those without criminal convictions.

Children are generally expected to attain level 2 by the end of KS1 and level 4 by the end of KS2. Level 4 attainment in particular is lower for those that went on to receive custodial sentences; 79.0% had attained level 2 or above in English and maths at the end of KS2, while 36.9% attained level 4 or above.

In contrast, most people without criminal convictions had attained level 2 (93.8%) and the majority attained level 4 (72.4%) in English and maths at the end of KS2. Among those who received non-custodial sentences or cautions, this fell to 87.8% achieving level 2 and 53.0% achieving level 4.

These differences are also present at KS4; 8.6% of those who went on to receive custodial sentences achieved five GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths. This increases to 58.3% for those without convictions. There is a similar pattern when looking at those who achieved five GCSEs at grades A* to G.

Although a large proportion of people who received custodial sentences had lower levels of prior attainment, the majority of those with low attainment did not go on to receive custodial sentences. Of the people who did not achieve KS2 level 2 in English and maths, 95.4% did not go on to receive a custodial sentence, while 97.0% of people who did not attain five GCSEs at grades A* to C did not go on to receive a custodial sentence.

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4. Social care experience

Of people who went on to receive custodial sentences, 41.7% had been classed as a child in need (CIN) and 17.6% had been classed as a child looked after (CLA). In both categories this is almost double the proportion of people who had non-custodial sentences, and the rate falls further among those without criminal convictions.

CIN refers to children who have been identified as requiring support from their local authority. CLA refers to children in care, for example, a residential home or foster placement. This shows that a disproportionately large share of those who went on to receive a custodial sentence had been classed as vulnerable during childhood, a pattern that repeats throughout the analysis when other forms of vulnerability and disadvantage are considered.

Although a large proportion of the people who had a custodial sentence had received social care or support, the majority of those that had ever been a CIN (92.2%) or a CLA (84.9%) did not go on to receive a custodial sentence.

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5. Education provision

A similar proportion of people who went on to receive custodial sentences had attended a pupil referral unit (PRU, 13.5%) or another form of alternative provision (AP, 10.2%). In contrast, a fraction of those that had no criminal convictions had attended a PRU (0.4%) or other AP (0.7%).

PRU and AP are designed to provide education and support to children who are unable to attend a mainstream school, for example, because of illness, exclusion, bullying, or special educational needs. For this reason, individuals who attended these settings and went on to receive a custodial sentence are often the same people who had high rates of absenteeism, had been excluded from school, or had special educational needs.

Although many people who received custodial sentences attended these education settings, most people who attended a PRU (81.5%) or other AP (85.4%) did not go onto receive custodial sentences.

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6. Absence and exclusions

Just over half (52.5%) of young people who went on to receive a custodial sentence had been persistently absent from school, missing a fifth of sessions or more in a single school year. Persistent absenteeism declined to around one-third (35.8%) among those with non-custodial sentences or cautions, contrasting sharply with 10.9% among those with no criminal convictions.

Although a large proportion of the people who went on to receive a custodial sentence had been persistently absent from school, the majority of persistent absentees (94.2%) did not go on to receive a custodial sentence.

School permanent exclusions (expulsions) were also more common among those that went on to receive custodial sentences, with 13.0% having been expelled. Additionally, a large majority (72.2%) had received a fixed exclusion (suspension), compared with roughly half (50.3%) of those that had non-custodial sentences or cautions and 9.0% of those without criminal convictions.

Although most people who received custodial sentences had been suspended from school and many had been permanently excluded, most people (92.6%) who had been suspended did not go to prison, nor did most people (77.9%) who had been excluded.

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7. Special educational needs status

More than three-quarters (79.8%) of people who went on to receive a custodial sentence had been identified with special educational needs (SEN) at some point during their schooling.

People who went on to receive custodial sentences were almost five times more likely to have had a SEN statement than people with no criminal convictions (18.0% compared with 3.8%).

The proportion of those with “school action”, the lowest level of support, was similar for the three groups.

Of people who had been identified with SEN, 96.2% did not go on to receive a custodial sentence. This ranges from 93.2% of those with a SEN statement to 98.1% of those that had “school action” support.

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8. Receipt of free school meals

Of people who went on to receive a custodial sentence, 68.5% had ever received free school meals (FSM) during their schooling, compared with a quarter (24.8%) of those without a criminal conviction.

Although a large proportion of the people who had a custodial sentence had received FSM, the vast majority (96.1%) of FSM recipients did not go on to receive a custodial sentence.

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9. Gender, ethnicity and region

Gender

The vast majority (92.6%) of people who went on to receive custodial sentences were male. Although there is a relatively even split between genders in the group without criminal convictions, males also make up two-thirds of the group that went on to receive a non-custodial sentence or caution (68.6%).

Ethnicity

Black Caribbean and Black African people made up only 1.4% and 2.5% of the entire study population, but they were most disproportionately represented in the group who went on to receive custodial sentences. Of people who went on to receive custodial sentences, 5.5% were Black Caribbean and 5.9% were Black African.

Most Black African (96.1%) and Black Caribbean (93.7%) individuals did not go on to receive a custodial sentence. Moreover, there is substantial variation by ethnicity in deprivation, vulnerability and education provision, which could explain variation.

Region

Disproportionately high numbers of people who went on to receive custodial sentences had lived in London (19.6%, compared with 13.4% of the overall population) based on their home address during key stage 4. Meanwhile, the East of England (7.7%) and South West (6.0%) are under-represented, compared with 11.4% and 9.9% of the overall population. As with ethnicity, substantial variations in regional deprivation, vulnerability and education provision could explain these differences.

Although a disproportionately large proportion of the people who had lived in London went on to receive a custodial sentence, most (97.7%) individuals who had lived in London did not go on to receive a custodial sentence.

Acknowledgement

The team would like to thank colleagues at the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted) for their valuable contributions.

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10. Education, social care and offending data

Ministry of Justice and Department for Education-linked data
Dataset | Web page published 30 June 2020
Educational data from the national pupil database (NPD), plus social care data, linked with police national computer (PNC) data including recordable offences, offending histories, and sentencing. These data can only be accessed by accredited researchers following an approval process.

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11. Glossary

Absences

Absence from school, either authorised or unauthorised.

This article uses the persistent absence indicators (PDF, 921KB) from the school census. The precise measure of persistent absence has changed over time. For the academic years ending 2006 to 2010 it was defined as 20% or more of sessions missed in an academic year, where a session is half a day of school. This is the measurement used in this article.

Between the academic years ending 2011 and 2015, persistent absence was defined as 15% of sessions missed, and decreased further to 10% from the academic year ending 2016. Because of these differences, comparisons with other publications covering different time periods should be made with caution.

Children in need

A child in need (CIN) is defined under the Children Act 1989 as a child who is unlikely to reach or maintain a satisfactory level of health or development, or their health or development will be significantly impaired without the provision of children's social care services, or the child is disabled.

Children in need include unborn children and young people aged 18 years and over who continue to require support from children's social care services.

In this analysis, a child was not considered to be in need if no further action was taken following a referral and there was no primary need identified.

Children looked after

In England, a child looked after (CLA) is one that is either provided accommodation by, or in the care of, a local authority. The term "looked-after children" includes unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, children in friends and family placements, and those children where the agency has authority to place the child for adoption. It does not include those who have been permanently adopted or who are on a special guardianship order.

A child in custody is automatically considered looked after. In this analysis, incidences of being looked after because of being in custody have been filtered out to avoid misleading the reader.

Custodial sentence

A custodial sentence is one where the offender is imprisoned or held in another institution, for example, a young offender’s institution or secure hospital. In this analysis, “imprisonment” refers to an immediate (non-suspended) custodial sentence.

Free school meals

Free school meals (FSM) are a statutory benefit available to school-aged children whose families receive other qualifying means-tested benefits from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Families need to register for them and not all families entitled to FSM go on to claim them. School census data record only where learners are both eligible and register a claim. In England, FSM have been provided universally for all infants (up to the end of KS1, year 2) in primary school since the start of the 2014 academic year.

FSM is a commonly used proxy measure for socio-economic disadvantage (including household income deprivation) during childhood. This analysis uses FSM status in the academic years ending 2002 to academic year ending 2010 inclusive, when most of the cohort will be in key stages 2 to 4.

Gender

“Male” or “Female” as reported in the learner’s most recent education record.

Key stages

In England, the national curriculum sets out programmes of study and attainment at four key stages, which must be taught by all local authority-maintained schools. This analysis focuses on key stages 2, 3 and 4.

  • key stage 2 covers the second half of primary school when children are typically aged 7 to 11 years; at the end of key stage 2 pupils sit tests to assess their level of English and maths

  • key stage 3 covers the first years of secondary school when children are typically aged 11 to 14 years; until late 2008, pupils sat tests at the end of key stage 3 to assess their level of English and maths

  • key stage 4 is when children are typically aged 14 to 16 years; most will sit GCSE exams or equivalent at the end of key stage 4

Non-custodial sentence

A sentence where the offender is not imprisoned or held in an institution. Examples of non-custodial sentences include community sentences such as unpaid work or a curfew, or fines. This analysis groups non-custodial sentences and cautions together.

Pupil referral unit

Pupil referral units (PRU) are a form of alternative provision (AP) maintained by the local authority. PRUs teach pupils who are unable to attend school, and typically only temporarily.

Special educational needs

A child or young person has special educational needs (SEN) if they have a learning difficulty or disability that calls for special educational provision to be made for them, that is, educational or training provision that is additional to or different from that made generally for their peers.

From 2002 until 2014, there were three levels of SEN provision: School Action, School Action Plus, and SEN Statement. These levels reflected a graduated approach to support, with SEN statements generally reserved for those requiring a level of support beyond what most mainstream schools could typically provide, such as access to certain therapies. This analysis looks at whether an individual has ever been classed as having SEN since the academic year ending 2003.

From 2015, the School Action and School Action Plus categories were combined to form one category of SEN support. Following the introduction of education, health and care (EHC) plans in September 2014, statements of SEN and EHC plans were grouped together within the data. A pupil has an EHC plan when a formal assessment has been made.

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12. Data sources and quality

Ministry of Justice – Department for Education data share

This analysis uses Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and Department for Education (DfE) data that have been linked as part of the Data First project. The data share includes data from prisons, courts, police national computer (PNC), national pupil database (NPD), children looked after (CLA) and children in need (CIN). It covers variables such as attainment, demographics, offending data, school exclusions and children in care.

The data were linked using a rules-based approach, and the data linking accuracy may vary. For example, it is harder to determine that records belong to one person if they have used different names and moved address often. It is important to be aware that the likelihood of a successful match is likely to vary according to characteristics such as ethnicity.

Further details of the linking process and data quality are available in section one of the MoJ-DfE Technical Note (PDF, 459KB).

Coverage and context

This analysis explores the education and social care background of people who received a custodial sentence up to the end of 2017, as well as that of their peers. It looks at a single cohort of individuals who were born in the academic year ending 1994 and undertook at least part of their schooling in England, therefore appearing in the national pupil database.

The cohort is split into three outcome groups:

  • those that had received an immediate custodial sentence in England or Wales (such as imprisonment or time served in another institution)
  • those that had been convicted of a crime and received a non-custodial sentence or caution, for example a fine
  • those who did not have any criminal convictions

In total, 687,101 individuals are included in the analysis.

As is common with administrative data, coverage varies over time. Years of coverage are reported on all figures and the cohort was selected to maximise available data as far as possible. A benefit of administrative data is that they capture more information about the harder-to-reach groups of the population, including those who are less likely to complete surveys.

Missingness

Where valid data are not available for the entire cohort, the number missing are reported in the notes accompanying each figure. Relative proportions (percentages) are calculated from the valid data.

Not all variables have a “missing” category because of how they are recorded. For example, a person is either present in the social care data or they are not. This analysis assumes that if a person is not present in the children in need (CIN) data then they were not classed as a child in need in England. In contrast, if a person is missing attainment data at key stage 4, this does not mean they failed to attain the qualification, but that the data are not included in the national pupil database.

Education data

To maximise coverage, the analysis includes all individuals who have a record in the national pupil database (NPD). This means the data include some who did not appear in the records for all stages of education. The advantage of this approach is that it does not exclude children who appear in the data at one point but missed formal full-time education at another time, some of whom will be among the most vulnerable. There will also be instances of children and young people who moved away from England or the rest of the UK. This is an important difference between this work and other studies, such as the recent MoJ-DfE publication, which examined only young people who had key stage 4 (KS4) records.

The limitation of this approach is that there is not the same amount of data available for every individual. For this reason, this article focuses on whether someone has ever met certain criteria, rather than looking at a single stage of schooling.

Coverage of independent school attendees is limited to KS4 attainment data. As many children attend state schools for the earlier stages of education before moving to an independent school, characteristics have been taken from the school census where possible. For this reason, there are more records covering KS4 than the other stages of schooling.

Demographic data

All demographics reported in this analysis are taken from the school census, with the most recently recorded response used where possible, including refusals. As previous, demographic data are limited for independent school attendees.

Justice system outcomes

Individuals in the study were assigned to one of the three outcome groups depending on their interactions with the justice system. These outcomes are based on data from the police national computer (PNC), a dataset that includes recordable offences committed in England and Wales.

First, the data were filtered for those that had been found guilty of an offence or had an outcome classed as “caution/warning/reprimand”. This removed individuals who had been investigated or tried but were not found to have committed an offence.

Next, the details of the sentence were used to determine whether someone had received a custodial or non-custodial sentence for an offence they were guilty of. For example, “imprisonment” or “return to prison” denote custodial sentences, whereas “community order” or “driving licence revoked” are non-custodial sentences.

Individuals were then assigned a group according to the highest level of sentence received, either the “custodial sentence” group for those with an immediate custodial sentence, or “non-custodial or caution” for those without.

Finally, those that did not appear in the police national computer, or who were filtered out because they had not been found guilty, were assigned to the “no criminal convictions” group.

All convictions from the age of criminal responsibility onwards are within scope. In England and Wales this is age 10 years. Sentencing guidelines vary by age and different principles apply to children and youth offenders. Readers should be aware that the age at which an offence is committed will influence outcome groups.

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13. Future developments

The authors welcome feedback and the opportunity to learn from best practices.

This article contains the initial findings from a project that aims to investigate how the probability of imprisonment varies by prior education and social provision and how that impact might differ according to young people’s backgrounds. This is a collaboration with the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted) and the findings will contribute to future policy development.

The second phase of the analysis will develop a model to predict the probabilities of interaction with the justice system and identify where types and quality of provision are associated with more negative outcomes. It will also examine the interaction between forms of vulnerability and disadvantage to further understand the experiences of the relatively small number of people who received custodial sentences.

We expect to publish the next phase of this work later in 2022.

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Contact details for this Article

Sian Crosweller, Mathieu Stafford, Holly Bathgate
integrated.data.analysis@ons.gov.uk
Telephone: +44 207 112 0151