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It was at the start of a new millennium that people worried about what the so-called millennium will do to our lives. The fear was that the bug will usher a new dark age where technology will be lost. Whilst the impending Armageddon never happened, the University College Northampton, as the University of Northampton was called then, was preparing to welcome the first cohort of Criminology students.
The first cohort of students joined us in September 2000 and since then 20 years of cohorts have joined since. During these years we have seen the rise of University fees, the expansion of the internet and google search and of course the emergence of social media. The original award was focused on sociolegal aspects, predominantly the sociology of deviance, whilst in the years since the changes demonstrate the departmental and the disciplinary changes that have happened.
Early on, as criminology was beginning to find its voice institutionally, the team developed two rules that have since defined the focus of the discipline. The first is that the subject will be taught in a multi-disciplinary approach, widely inclusive of all the main disciplines involved in the study of crime; so alongside sociology, you will find psychology, law, history, philosophy to name but a few. The impetus was to present these disciplines on an equal footing and providing opportunity to those joining the course, to discover their own voice in criminology. The second rule was to give the students the opportunity to explore contentious topics and draw their own perspective. Since the first year of running it, these rules have become the bedrock of UoN Criminology.
The course since the early years has grown and gone through all those developmental stages, childhood, adolescence and now eventually we have reached adulthood. During these stages, we managed to forge a distinctiveness of what criminology looks like; introducing for example a research placement to allow the students to explore the theory in practice. In later years we created courses that reflect Criminology in the 21st Century always relating to the big questions and forever arming learners with the skills to ask the impossible questions.
Through all these years students join with an interest in studying crime and by the time they leave us, to move onto the next chapter of their lives, they have become hard core criminologists. This is always something that we consider one of the course’s greatest contribution to the local community.
In an ordinary day, like any other day in the local court one may see an usher, next to a probation officer, next to a police officer, next to a drugs rehabilitation officer, all of them our graduates making up the local criminal justice system. A demonstration of the reach and the importance of the university as an institution and the services it provides to the local community. More recently we developed a module that we teach in prison comprised by university and prison students. This is a clear sign of the maturity and the journey we have done so far…
As the 21st century entered, twin towers fell, bus and tube trains exploded, consequent wars were made, riots in the capital, the banking crisis, the austerity, bridge attacks, Brexit, extinction rebellion, buildings burning, planes coming down, forest fires and #metoo, and we just barely cover 20 years. These and many more events keep criminological discourse relevant, increase the profile of the subject and most importantly further the conversation we are having in our society as to where we are heading.
As I raise my glass to salute the first 20 years of Criminology at the University of Northampton, I am confident that the next 20 years will be even more exciting. For those who have been with us so far a massive thank you, for those to come we are looking forward to discussing some of the many issues with you. We are passionate about criminology and we want you to infect you with our passion.
As they say in prison, the first 20 years are difficult the rest you just glide through…
Having read a colleague’s reflection on the past year, I started to think about my own experiences of the year and what meaning it had for me.
As a criminologist I am critical of what I read, see and experience, consequently I have a fairly cynical view of the world and I have to say, the world rarely disappoints. But amongst all the chaos, violence and political hubris, there must surely be chinks of light, otherwise what is the point. A challenge then, to find the positive rather than view the negative, as hard as that may seem.
My year was difficult on both a professional and personal front and it tested my resilience and patience to the full. I have suffered poor health resulting in spells in hospital and long periods away from work. Difficult to engineer any positive spin on that but I’m sure I can give it a go.
We all have read about and no doubt many of us have experienced the crippling effect of an often reported, failing National Health Service (NHS). It would be easy to state the problems and apportion blame, but in doing so we miss some nuggets of positivity (is that a real word?). I have nothing but praise for the staff working under extreme pressure within the health system. When I was suddenly taken ill at home the paramedics that attended were brilliant, one a student from our home university. When I arrived at the hospital, despite a manic casualty unit, I was well cared for by another student from the university. I single these students out because there is a sense of pride in knowing that I am part of an institution that helps teach and coach health staff that care so well for others. Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention that all of the other staff were kind and caring. Later when I was admitted to hospital after a number of visits, I found my care to be exemplary. I know this is not everyone’s experience and when we read the news or watch it on television it is all about failure. My exemplary care and that of many around me isn’t particularly newsworthy. Whilst in hospital I was visited by volunteers who were distributing books, kind people that give up their time to help others. When my wife visited, she came in with a cup of coffee purchased from a café within the hospital run by volunteers. More people giving up their time. I know of and feel privileged to have taught and still teach students that volunteer in all sorts of organisations around the country. The cynical side of me says that we shouldn’t have to have volunteers doing this but that is not really the point is it? The point is that there are kind and caring people around that do it to make life a little easier for others.
A prolonged absence from work caused some chaos in teaching, mitigated by colleagues that stepped in. Busy colleagues, overloaded colleagues, who had additional burdens placed upon them due to my absence. Even now on returning to work colleagues are having to take up the slack to cover for my current inability to work at full capacity. But despite these burdens, I have experienced nothing but support and kindness not just resultant of my illness but throughout what has been a difficult year. Difficult to be cynical except that to say some of the difficulties faced should never have arisen but the point is that there were kind and caring people around to provide much needed help and support.
If I turn my thoughts to wider issues, the dreadful events at Fishmonger’s Hall served to remind us of the violent world we live in but that very event also serves to remind us of the kind, caring and brave nature of many. The victims Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones were both engaged in a project that was aimed at making society a better place. Those that tackled the terrorist showed the sort of selfless bravery that epitomises the essence of human nature.
If we think about it and it probably doesn’t take too much thinking, we can find countless examples of good things being done by kind and caring people. We can be cynical and suggest that the situations should never have arisen in the first place that necessitated that kindness or those actions, but the incidents and situations are there and are played out in society every day, C’est la vie’. Maybe, just occasionally, rather than thinking about doom and gloom, we should celebrate the capacity of people to simply be human.
“These children are in our care; we, the state, are their parents- and what are we setting them up for…the dole, the streets, an early grave? I tell you: this shames our country and we will put it right.”
David Cameron MP, Prime Minister October 2015 at the Conservative Party Conference.
Well, I think it would be fair to say that politicians’ minds have not been exercised unduly over the fate of care leavers since David Cameron made the above promise in 2015. I worked with children in care and care leavers involved in the youth justice system for over thirty years and although his analysis of the outcomes for care leavers was simplistic and crude, tragically Cameron’s statement rings true for many of those leaving care.
With regard to the criminal justice system, Lord Laming’s independent review “In Care, Out of Trouble” http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/In%20care%20out%20of%20trouble%20summary.pdf, notes that there is no reliable data on the numbers of looked after children in custody. However, based on data from a number of sources, the review came to the conclusion that around 400 looked after children are in custody at any one time. The total number of children in custody for July 2019 is 817. So, slightly less than half of those children in custody are looked after children according to the best estimates available, drawn from different sources. http://youthjusticeboard.newsweaver.co.uk/yots2/1g2x6m3h9q315chudc9elc?email=trueYJBulletin
Moving the spotlight, a huge 40% of care leavers are not engaged in Education, Training or Employment and only 6% of care leavers gain entry to university https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/464756/SFR34_2015_Text.pdf . This at a time when around 50% of children now have access to Higher Education and the opportunities that this can provide. Also, 20% of young people who are homeless have previously been in care.
Naturally, we have to be careful to provide a level of balance to the above rather desperate and shocking figures. Lord Laming’s review found that 94% of children in care did not get in trouble with the law. However, children in care are six times more likely to be cautioned, or convicted of an offence than children in the wider population. Furthermore, children in care who come to police attention are more likely to be prosecuted and convicted than cautioned when compared to the wider child population.
So, what has happened since 2015 when David Cameron declared his intention to “put it right”? In truth, there have been some steps forward and these need to be celebrated and built upon. The Care Leaver Covenant, a promise made by private, public or voluntary organisations to provide support for care leavers aged 16-25 has meant the availability of employment opportunities for young care leavers in the Civil Service, local authorities and a range of private sector organisations. Closer to home, here at the University of Northampton, we have launched a new package of support for care leavers who want to study with us. The package offers the possibility, from 2020, of a fully funded place in our Halls of Residence for the first academic year, a contract which extends their accommodation lease to include the summer vacation. A block for many care leavers entering Higher Education is the very real issue of where to live at the end of the academic year, so this tries to address this issue. Another block experienced is financial hardship; the offer provides a non-means tested financial award of up to £1,500 per year to help with course and living costs, and this alongside the local authority’s statutory responsibility to support access to higher education may also help. We also have a designated member of support staff to provide advice and guidance. All these demonstrate our commitment to widening participation and encouraging ambition.
Of course, this is only part of the picture. Arguably, our engagement with young people in care needs to start shortly after their transition to secondary school. The wider social structures which perpetuate disadvantage and poverty will continue to challenge those who are children in care and leaving care. The “adverse childhood experiences” – a rather unedifying term for physical, sexual, and emotional abuse perpetrated by carers or parents-will still have an impact for this group and potentially impair their ability or commitment to study.
If however, I learnt anything from my years working with children in care and children leaving care, it is that you should not underestimate their ability to overcome the obstacles placed in their way. With the right support and a child centred approach, education can provide the right framework for opportunities. Victor Hugo famously said that if you open a school door, you close a prison. Let’s kick open the door of Higher Education a little wider and increase the life chances of these children in OUR care.
As a footnote, I should say that my mum was in care from the age of four until she was fifteen when she was adopted. I would therefore be happy to acknowledge that this has some influence on my perspective and my interest in this group of young people.
Dave Palmer Lecturer in Criminal Justice Services