Poor educational outcomes for today’s children could create a future wave of crime

During the pandemic, those most at risk of illness were the elderly and the vulnerable. But it was Britain’s youngest who felt the development and social impacts the most. The full scale of the problem is still slowly unravelling. 

As children started at school, we heard horror stories of kids arriving not yet toilet-trained or unable to use cutlery. But, for once, this isn’t anecdotal and there is a large body of evidence which backs up these stories. 

Report after report has confirmed the effects on children when they arrive at primary school. Last year, the education watchdog Ofsted noted the delays in their speech and language developments. The personal, social and emotional skills of the age cohort have been held back, in some instances, quite dramatically.

Alongside the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the distinguished econometrician Richard Blundell of University College London looked at the impact more generally throughout the school years on educational attainment and skills. 

A key feature of all of these studies is how existing inequalities widened significantly during the pandemic. Children from deprived backgrounds have fallen even further behind.

A disturbing corollary is the future increase in crime. 

This is the implication of a paper published in the latest issue of the American Economic Association’s journal “Economic Policy” by Anders, Barr and Smith. The report titled “the effect of early childhood education on adult criminality” does what it says on the tin.

Sophistical statistical analysis of two large and reliable data sets, each containing information on around 1.5 million people, found powerful results on how good childhood education leads to a large reduction in later criminal behaviour. The impact is strongest in areas with high levels of deprivation. 

They’re not the first to find this either. Cambridge economist Robin Marris was a lifelong liberal, but he admitted his findings in a study carried out by the Home Office in the early 2000s had altered his previous beliefs about crime. He showed that most crime is committed by relatively unskilled young men from deprived backgrounds.  

In the interests of full transparency, I collaborated with Marris on some of this research. 

The real interest was that once a young person first committed a crime, they could go on to commit very large numbers, even potentially thousands, of criminal acts.

So not only is crime concentrated on young, unskilled men, it is heavily concentrated on a small proportion of them.

The American authors of the recently published paper make the same point independently of Marris.  When looking at anti-poverty programmes, they found improving the development of a single career criminal can result in more than 100 fewer victims every year. 

The lower the level of educational attainment, the fewer skills which a young man acquires, the more likely he is to become a prolific criminal. The probability of an individual falling into this category remains low, but it is very much higher than it is for those of even average capabilities.

Mitigating the impact will require substantial resources, at a time when there are good reasons to restrain public spending. And these will need skilful targeting at deprived areas across the country.

The educational outcomes of Britain’s kids are not just relevant to them and our productivity, but how safe our future streets are. 

As published in City AM Wednesday 8th February 2023
Image: Wikimedia
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