Tackling Youth Violence: The Role of Unconscious Bias in Holding Back Social Transformation.
This article considers children and young people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, (BAME) with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), but crucially without a council-issued Education Health and Care Plan, (EHCP), in the context of the current youth violence epidemic. It explores how Unconscious (Implicit) Bias, (here, particularly unconscious cultural bias) may have a detrimental effect on our national efforts toward social transformation; It also briefly explores how counsellors and psychotherapists may be contributing to the problem, and how we might be part of the solution.
While the main focus of this essay is boys from the Black Caribbean communities, BAME includes Black African, Asian, dual heritage, and white minority ethnic communities, and of course, includes girls.
While the focus of this article is on cultural Unconscious (Implicit) Bias, Unconscious Bias can of course include class bias, gender and sexual orientation bias, religious bias, intellectual bias, and other biases specific to the ontology of the Practitioner.
I am a black British counsellor of Jamaican descent, and mother of a dual heritage, neurodivergent child. I sit on the Steering Group of our local SEND Parent Forum, and represent this group at various strategic public health meetings, as a Parent Representative. I was born, and still live in, an area blighted by the 2011 riots.
Following those devastating riots, the then work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith declared gang and youth violence a ‘public health issue’ and urged us to ‘start treating it as such’(1). Health and wellbeing boards began to prioritize the consideration of youth violence in their strategic meetings (2).
Fast-forward to 2014, Nunn and Sackville (1) highlighted that, for health boards to achieve their ‘ambitious’ plans to transform this situation, there is a need for good practice in this area to be further developed and that while public health can’t provide all the answers, approaching youth violence as a public health concern gives us the opportunity to ‘rethink how services for young people are delivered’.
Still, over eight years after Catch22’s seminal report(2) was published, right now as I am completing this article, a triple stabbing has occurred less than a mile from my home. One teenager is dead, and two more, critically injured.
A week ago, as a Parent Representative, I attended a strategy meeting organized by my local council and the health board. It’s aim? To effect just the type of local transformation discussed above. In preparation for this meeting, I had re-visited the following reports: the Vulnerable Adolescent Thematic Review authored by the Croydon Safeguarding Children Board in February 2019, and Keeping Kids Safe- the Children’s Commissioner Report, also released in February 2019. A month after the release of these reports, another six teenagers brutally lost their lives to a blade: 16 year old Abdullah Muhammad; 19 year old Kamali Gabbidon-Lynck; 18 year old Connor Brown; 18 year old Hazrat Umar; 17 year old Jodie Chesney; and 17 year old Yousef Ghaleb Makki. So, despite the good will, and the research into the family circumstances of our most vulnerable young people, youth violence continues unabated…
Why, despite the good will, does the youth violence epidemic rage on?
According to the above reports, thirty-four thousand children in England either belong to, or are on the periphery of, a gang ‘…and have experienced violence in the past 12 months’ (3). Of these, a mere 6,560 are known to authorities. These children are 95% more likely to have social and emotional health issues. “… a failure of institutions to respond adequately, for example children excluded from school or deprived of much-needed mental health support” is one of three significant factors in creating an opportunity for gang exploitation. Having a Special Educational Need such as dyslexia or ADHD; being the target of bullying in school; or having mental health needs are the remaining three main characteristics of children at risk.
The Children’s Commissioners Report report sheds further light on these statistics: 80% of these children, even if they have SEND, have no Statement, or EHC Plan. Of the children most at risk, Black Caribbean boys are consistently over-represented. Synthesizing this information, that would mean that children from a BAME background without an EHC Plan are at significantly higher risk of gang violence and exploitation.
The Children’s Commissioner’s report points out that most of the 34,000 children that fall into this category have parents that are ‘desperately trying’ to keep their children safe, further stating that a recurrent theme emerging from the research was the frustration parents felt at the consistent disregard for their concerns by agencies, even where they reported to agencies that their child was in ‘imminent danger’. Crucially, with reference to the Serious Case Reviews that contribute significantly to the research, the Children’s Commissioner’s report states that:
“In all of the cases, the children had chaotic and unstable home lives, frequent but usually sporadic contact with different agencies and a complex set of emotional health issues, usually combined with SEND. All of the case reviews show how agencies could have, and should have identified and responded to risk factors earlier.”
Why has it been so difficult for practitioners and professionals within these agencies, to identify and respond in an appropriate way?
Well, alongside agency failures, contributing factors stated in the tone and evidence in the reports cite ‘parental disengagement’ from services, ‘chaotic home lives’, ‘domestic violence’, and ‘absentee fathers’ most often. But the statistics in the mentioned reports, and the heart-breaking real-life stories behind them illustrated in newspaper articles and serious case reviews, make it clear that it would now be irrational to talk about youth violence without placing SEN at the heart of the transformation agenda. And that means addressing what goes on at school…
On GCSE Results Day 2018, commuters on the Northern Line were confronted with the brutal truth of the effects of this failure of agencies to respond appropriately to children in crisis: a group of South London students who came to be known as #Education Not Exclusion subtly replaced northern line tube maps (above) with the ‘School To Prison Line’, deftly illustrating the missed opportunities of practitioners and agencies, and the damaging consequences of our punitive education system which, in recent years, has widely chosen to employ ‘Isolation Booths’ to manage behaviour, disproportionately for Black and Minority Ethnic children, and children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, despite there being scant evidence of the efficacy of this technique, or research around the real possibility that isolation booths may in fact be detrimental to our young people’s mental health in both the short and long term.
The concept of the School to Prison Pipeline is nothing new in the United States, as this video from VOX explains very well. And to borrow a term from a recent American article in Ed Week, which cites the concept of the ‘school to prison pipeline’, it can be argued that here in the UK, ‘criminalizing strategies have become a natural part of the school environment without much evidence as to their effectiveness’.
It is SENDCOs, Inclusion Managers, teachers and Head Teachers, that are essentially responsible for interpreting the behaviour of their pupils and metering out behavioural sanctions and interventions, identifying possible special educational needs (and special needs), prescribing appropriate inclusion and special education provisions, and applying for Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs).
But not one of the reports cited here seems to have addressed the controversial question of Unconscious Bias as a potentially crucial significant factor…
How much is unconscious cultural bias on the part of practitioners, a factor in setting our young people on a path to gang exploitation?
Unconscious bias (automatically activated views and opinions that are outside of our awareness) is a recognised phenomenon in the field of psychology (4) and in recruitment practice, and there is even some application of Unconscious Bias Theory in social work. The application of Unconscious Bias theory to the work of SENDCOs and school staff in relation to the pupils in their care is limited, but growing.
There will of course be other contributing factors, aside from Unconscious Bias, which have been, and continue to be explored by academics and researchers. However:
We do not know how far unconscious bias effects the difference in interpretation of behaviours of BAME boys with SEND and their white counterparts; or how far Unconscious Bias contributes to the interventions and strategies employed by school professionals to manage what may be misinterpreted as ‘problem behaviour’, such as those deftly drawn in Education Not Exclusion’s School To Prison Pipeline.
We do not know how far Unconscious Bias contributes to the over-representation of BAME boys in those diagnosed with ADHD or a conduct disorder, and an under-representation of the diagnosis of BAME boys on the autism spectrum, and how much this results in inappropriate or ineffectual interventions being delivered.
We do not know how far Unconscious Bias contributes to many BAME boys not having their Special educational needs recognized until late, which may in turn be impacting the figures for school failure. Or how far academic expectations (in the UK) are lowered for boys from the BAME community, by school professionals, and how much therefore, (for example), the disparity between their higher than average cognitive and verbal reasoning skills, and their written output, is not picked up.
We do not know how far collective and individual Unconscious Practitioner Bias contributes to ‘the frustration parents felt, at the consistent disregard for their concerns by agencies’, or the sporadic engagement with those agencies, as outlined in the Children’s Commissioner’s Report.
We do not know, therefore, how great an impact Unconscious Practitioner Bias has, on the disproportionately unfavourable outcomes for boys in the BAME SEND community, or in turn, how great an impact this has on the current Youth Violence Epidemic.
We also have to recognise that within the field of counselling and psychotherapy, certain cultural groups are still severely under-represented, (both as clients and practitioners) leading to a state where the majority of practicing counsellors and psychotherapists are white, female, and middle-classed. Our field too, both in terms of the interpretation of psychological research, and in practice, will have its Unconscious Bias collectively, and within the individual therapy room. We do not yet know, the extent of this collective and individual Unconscious Bias, or how it effects the efficacy of our work, when BAME SEND boys do, finally, enter our therapeutic spaces. In short we don’t know what effect we may be having on the Youth Violence Epidemic, detrimental or otherwise.
I am arguing that, in the strategic planning processes of ‘Transformation Plans’ being proposed by public health boards the length and breadth of Britain, this lack of knowledge should be considered a major threat and weakness (but also an opportunity to commission research and to dive deep, and to understand) on any SWOT analysis. I find it helpful to think of Unconscious Bias as the undercurrents of any social, psychological or educational practice. Any strategic planning that fails to take into account Unconscious Bias, may result in a strategy being built on a fundamentally flawed SWOT analysis which resembles an inward-facing corral:
In recent years, there has been a move by the education system, towards so-called ‘Trauma Informed Practice’, ‘Attachment Informed Practice’, and a focus on Adverse Childhood Experiences’. And a parallel move by local government service providers towards so-called ‘Person-centred’ service delivery. As an Integrative Counsellor informed by Attachment Theory and the theory of Adverse Childhood Experiences, but with a Person Centred approach at the heart of my practice, it seems to me that one of the fundamental saboteurs of truly effective Person Centred work, Unconscious Bias, is being ignored. It is something that any conscientious counsellor will be constantly working to mitigate in their clinical supervision, in service to their clients. Yet at the very heart of our system, it has yet to be truly, explicitly acknowledged and worked with. In my view, without public health boards, and the Department of Education explicitly acknowledging the possibility of a potentially huge detrimental effect of Unconscious Bias; investigating how far this is, or is not, an issue, and if it proves to be necessary, working to mitigate Unconscious Practitioner Bias, we may be sleepwalking towards Transformation Plan Failure, no matter how good our conscious intentions.
There is however, growing evidence for the effectiveness of certain types of Unconscious Bias Training, in mitigating Unconscious Bias:
The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s recent report (5) cites the work of Jillian Whatley, who conducted a study in America with multidisciplinary staff on the behavioural changes towards African American students, and awareness of their own Unconscious Bias, after an unconscious bias ‘test’ (IAT) and a bias literacy workshop. Results showed that this training led to a significant increase in practitioners’ awareness of their vulnerability to bias, and positively effected practitioners’ expectations of individual African American students. Whatley’s investigation was deemed ‘high quality evidence’ by the commission.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report concluded that Unconscious Bias Training following an unconscious bias test and debrief can be effective in reducing (but not eliminating) Unconscious Bias. But they do also point out that more research needs to be done: most measures of behaviour change was invalid, and consequently the evidence for the training’s ability to positively effect practitioner behaviour is ‘limited’. Additionally, the report argued that further ‘UK-based’ evidence is needed and their research indicated that there is ‘little academic research conducted on [Unconscious Bias Training] in the UK’.
Would appropriate clinical supervision from registered psychotherapists mitigate for the potentially devastating effects on practitioner decision-making in schools? Perhaps. Again, at present, we do not know.
If and when the BAME child gets access to mental health or psychological provision (for instance, therapy, counselling, or assessment by an Educational Psychologist or Psychologist), some practitioners may not have had the experiential training and personal therapy as a necessary component of that training, that may have helped them to bring into awareness their unconscious biases. Even where unconscious bias has been brought into awareness, supervision which seeks to keep unconscious bias on the agenda may be necessary to keep it there.
However, even if clinical supervision were made available, practitioners, and especially SENDCOs, would find it difficult to devote the time to it, unless the government agrees to legally protect their time for SENDCO duties, as recommended in the 2019 report “It’s About Time: The Impact of SENCO Workload on the Professional and the School”(6). That doesn’t however, mean that we should disengage with these questions: Transformations do not usually come easily.
Given the statistics about boys from the BAME community, particularly black Caribbean boys, without an EHC Plan, but with SEND, should we as a therapeutic community, in the context of this demographic, be considering an EHCP as a protective factor in Child Safeguarding Risk Assessments; or conversely, the lack of an EHCP, as an additional risk factor. A recent article in Special Needs Jungle, and the 2017 Local Government Ombudsman’s report Education Health and Care Plans: Our First 100 Investigations(7) sheds light on the failure of 1/3 of councils to adequately provide for children with SEND, in spite of SEND legislation; and many parents feel there is no option but to apply for an EHC Plan to secure the assistance their child needs to thrive. If the psychotherapeutic community were to highlight the risks this poses through the application of this rationale in their assessment processes, would this influence the council’s decision-making?
I put the question of the effects of unconscious bias to the health board and the council, at the Transformation Plan strategy meeting. I proffered that if we do not engage with these questions, any plan for ‘Transformation’ cannot be meaningful, effective, or long-term. I was met first with silence, and then (encouragingly) with interest: it seems the question of Unconscious Bias had not been explored in any depth, up until that point. Some members of the board felt here was a great opportunity to engage meaningfully with the question. My collaboration with the board continues.
The focus here is on boys from the BAME community who have a special educational need, but do not have an EHCP, particularly those of black Caribbean descent, because of their over-representation in statistics. However, although not over-represented in these statistics, the content of this article may also be true for white children from working-classed and under-privileged backgrounds, and children from white ethnic minorities (for example, Polish or Lithuanian children, and those from the traveller communities). Unconscious bias is not by any means exclusively cultural: the impact of socio-economic bias has not been discussed here, and I feel that too, may have a significant impact on unfavourable outcomes for white working-classed children as well as children from the BAME community.
It is also crucial to remember that, although certain factors highlighted here increase a child’s risk significantly, all children, regardless of background, can fall victim to gang exploitation and youth violence.
The reports outlined here and the research that contributes to them, (except for that by the Equality and Human Rights Commission) have not addressed Unconscious Bias. Yet the eight years of strategizing since youth violence was declared a public health concern; the knife crime summits and the joined-up working, have not seen the desired transformation, or done much to preserve the lives of our most vulnerable children and young people. The Evening Standard reported that, in 2018, 76 people lost their lives to knife crime. 23 of these, were children. And now, a glance at the news reports online reveals that by March of this year, the body count of children and young people aged 14 to 26, who have lost their lives to knife crime was 9, and rising. After that, the newspapers seemed to have stopped counting…
Perhaps it is a serious and in-depth exploration of the effects of Unconscious Bias on Practitioner decision-making, (and perhaps on government policy-making too) that needs to be addressed, and with urgency. That is, if we are truly to effect a transformation of any sort, whether that be in the therapy room, the classroom or the halls of local government, borough-wide, or nationally. We now have a Hard Right government, a country which is divided, and levels of racism not seen since the 1970s. It may be more important now, to truly explore Unconscious Bias, than it has been at any other time in our recent history.
1. Nunn B&, Sackville T. Gang Violence is a Public Health Issue. Guardian Professional [Internet]. 2014 Jan; Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/healthcare-network/2014/jan/30/youth-gangs-public-health-concern
2. Catch22, MHP Health. Violence prevention , health promotion : 2013.
3. Children’s Commissioner. Keeping Kids Safe: Improving safeguarding responses to gang violence and criminal exploitation. 2019.
4. Herbert C. Unconscious bias and higher education. 2013.
5. Commission HR. Unconscious bias training : An assessment of the evidence for. 2018.
6. Dr Curran, Helen; Moloney, H; Heavey ADBA. It’s About Time: The Impact of SENCO Workload on The Professional and the School. 2018.
7. Local Government & Social Care Ombudsmen. Education Health and Care PLans: Our First 100 Investigations [Internet]. 2017. Available from: https://www.cypnow.co.uk/digital_assets/81d0585c-54c7-4368-bf5a-c1eb1cf97ab9/EHCP-FINAL3.pdf
8. Croydon Safeguarding Children Board. Vulnerable Adolescent Thematic Review. February 2019
**Most documents referred to, and links to sources cited, can be found on our Think Space.
Thankyou for reading.