Absence from School and Absence of Data: The Punitiveness of Ignoring School Absenteeism in ‘Penal Exceptionalism’
School exclusion: What exists is prohibited?
I came to England to do a masters in Criminology in 2013/14 when the Troubling Families programme was in full effect and aberrant behaviour in youth, as well as how it intersects with parenting practices and the family’s social standing, was an essential topic in the media. As a result, the research interests that I had in Slovenia, where I am from, quickly shifted from prisons, sentencing, and the police to the constant over-policing of some children and families through policies in the spheres of social work, criminal justice, health, housing, and education.
In England today, excluded young people and children who enter the criminal justice system are among the most vulnerable, with many experiencing learning disabilities, mental health issues, and addiction problems. Also, young people of Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic backgrounds and lower socioeconomic backgrounds remain overrepresented in school exclusions and every part of the youth justice system. Literature in education and criminology has found that school exclusion can guide some youth towards justice involvement. Several government and policy reports have also identified the link between exclusion and juvenile offending.
Yet, it is hard to disentangle how schooling, its disciplinary mechanisms, and the criminal justice system might intersect and help reproduce socioeconomic, racial, and gender differences. The school-to-prison-pipeline metaphor represents the processes through which pupils whose behaviour violates disciplinary rules are filtered out of the educational environment and into the youth justice system. The school-to-prison pipeline has been conceptualised as an escalation of trouble and stigma across various countries but rarely in penally moderate jurisdictions. How can we explain UK’s exclusionary school practices in a broader penal context and what is happening with school exclusion and absenteeism in Slovenia, a country with a lenient and welfare-oriented criminal and youth justice system?
England and the US: The usual suspects of punitiveness
Back in 2008, Lacey examined how the political economies of different nations can explain their divergent penal trajectories. According to Lacey, the US and the UK are liberal market economies of penal populism that use the criminal justice system to manage inequality, producing stigmatising and exclusionary effects. Coordinated market economies, characterised by proportionally representative electoral systems and a generous welfare state, on the other hand, aspire to have a reintegrative and inclusionary criminal justice system. The US and UK are thus less reluctant to expand the criminal justice budget and incarcerate people, targeting through punishment categories of socially, racially, and otherwise excluded groups. It is also not
surprising that school cultures in the UK and US display punitive and exclusionary tendencies and are far from achieving more inclusionary aims. Fifteen years ago, Simon outlined practices in the US that reflected an official punitive turn in resolving pupils’ misbehaviour and extreme examples of criminal justice infiltrating the education system. Simon used the term ‘penal pedagogy’ as a metaphor for the innovations the schools have borrowed directly from criminal justice (for example, zero-tolerance approaches, in-school detention, and metal detectors). Corrective practices in England’s educational settings may be less punitive than some of the more extreme examples in the US, but English settings display a similar exclusionary tendency. In the US and the UK, educational punishment and disciplinary practices, including exclusion, could thus be – together with policing, detention, immigration enforcement, housing, the judiciary, and social services – conceptualised as what Meiners has called one of the ‘tentacles’ of the carceral state.
Slovenia: The lenient ‘penal exceptionalist’
Slovenia’s imprisonment rates are among the lowest in Europe, and the criminal justice system has consistently stood out, encouraging the term ‘Slovenian exceptionalism’ to parallel it with the Nordic countries. In Slovenia, most sentences against adults (about 70%) are conditional (similar to probation in other systems). Only 20% of all sentences are prison sentences, of which 80% fall under three years of imprisonment.
The age of criminal responsibility in Slovenia is 14. The prosecution diverts 48,5 % of young people that commit a crime away from the youth justice system. When a juvenile is charged, and the court reaches a final decision, it imposes non-residential educational measures (supervision by social services, instructions and prohibitions, reprimand) in more than 90% of cases, followed by institutional educational measures in just 7,6% of cases. Courts can impose juvenile prison only against older juveniles aged 16-17 and have not used it in more than 0,5% of all cases in the last five years. However, between July and September 2022, the Institute of Criminology in Ljubljana gathered 172 juvenile criminal law case files from 2015-2019 as part of the European Union and the Council of Europe’s study. In the analysis, we identified trends that indicate a need to rethink the meaning and routes of penality in Slovenia and beyond. I will use the identified correlation between children’s nationality and absence from school to indicate why. 60% of all juvenile offenders in the sample had been absent from school due to truancy and/or permanent-, fixed-term-, or unofficial exclusion before the criminal proceedings against them started. While 57% of Slovenian nationals in the sample were absent from school, the number rose to 73% for Roma pupils, along with all children that identified as Muslim, whereby 65% of all children in the sample were Slovenian nationals, 8% were Roma, and only 5% were Muslim. According to the last official population census from 2002 (the data for a new census was gathered in 2021 but not yet analysed and published), Slovenian nationals comprised 83,1% of the population in Slovenia, with 0,17% self-identifying as Roma and 0,5% as Muslim.
School Absenteeism: What does not exist is permitted?
Drawing broadly on Lacey’s work, we would expect the lenient and welfare-oriented Slovenia, where school exclusion at the primary-school level is officially prohibited, to be experiencing little school absenteeism and integrating socially and culturally excluded children into the school setting. We would also expect schools in Slovenia to identify young people’s emotional and behavioural difficulties as their vulnerabilities rather than risks and to offer support, thereby keeping children in school and building educational environments of solidarity and trust.
Further research is needed to contextualise in a meaningful and generalisable way the number of juvenile offenders absent from school and the breakdown according to nationality and ethnicity (but also gender, socioeconomic status, substance misuse, and disabilities correlated with school absenteeism in the sample). Nevertheless, the results presented above indicate a concerning trend of how schools choose to ignore the absence of some pupils with greater ease than others. When seeking a broader and more nuanced comparative understanding of a country’s ‘punitiveness’, we need not only compare incarceration rates as the primary indicator.
In the future, we need to examine in detail the nature and frequency of imprisonment and, more importantly, punishment beyond the prison and the criminal justice system, as well as the broader issues around the changing nature of social control. If children absent and excluded from school do not enter the criminal justice system, which institutions are they in contact with, and what kind of life do they lead as adults? Criminological research on school exclusion remains crucial to identify how – in liberal or coordinated market democracies – undemocratic penal practices can occur in youth justice and schools and which groups of young people they discriminate against when criminal laws and education policies clash with institutional discourses and organisational working practices.
Jasmina Arnež is a Research Associate at the Institute for Criminology at the Faculty of Law, University of Ljubljana and the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford. She has recently published a book that examines how class shapes interactions between professionals, parents, and young people in the youth justice system.