Twenty years of youth offending teams

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

This year, youth offending teams (YOTs) turned 20. Here, current and former YOT managers reflect on developments over the 20 years, while the YJB chair considers the challenges that lie ahead.

Picture: Adobe Stock
Picture: Adobe Stock

PHIL SUTTON, former YOT manager for Wessex YOT

Youth justice reform had been extensively planned during Labour’s opposition years. It had to regain public confidence in a system that was portrayed in the media as ignoring victims, slow to deal with repeat offending, and lacking any clear, national ownership.

In Hampshire, our two historic cities agreed to work with the county council to continue to provide a local youth justice service coterminous with the police and probation area. We made a successful bid to be one of the five national pilots of YOTs. Simultaneously we were asked to pilot the final warning scheme, child safety orders, local child curfew orders, action plan orders, reparation orders and parenting orders.

There was little new money to deliver all this, and, in hindsight, some of the plans were ill-conceived. Child safety orders and local child curfews were not used and were quickly dropped; reparation orders were being delivered with a limited understanding of restorative justice and got off to a flaky start. The concept of parenting orders was divisive and the inflexible nature of the final warning scheme led to thousands of children being brought before the courts. By 2002, the numbers going into custody peaked at 3,000 per year.

Now we have a coherent, national youth justice system which retains its principal aim from the 1998 legislation that introduced the reforms: to prevent offending by children and young people.

PAT JENNINGS, head of Bedford YOS

In mid-1999, I was appointed as an operational manager to this new service called a youth offending team that would cover the Reading and Wokingham area of Berkshire. Working with the other two managers we had to find a building to house 25 staff members and integrate the existing social services youth justice team.

We moved into our office in February 2000. We had to understand the 36 key performance indicators and a new language of pre-sentence reports and community sentences. I was introduced to the world of speaking in court to magistrates. Getting used to meeting senior police officers and being called “sir” is not something a young black kid from south London would have thought he would ever hear.

I have been a head of service in Walsall, Tameside, Bromley and now Bedford.

Children’s crimes have changed. As a result, we’ve had to adapt our approach, learning about contextual safeguarding, criminal exploitation and finding effective ways to manage children affected by such issues. As a colleague recently said: “Every day is a school day”.

I am proud that I have been able to say that YOTs have made a difference in children some of whom have come back to tell us how they live crime-free lives.

It is also pleasing to see victims who have, as a result of our work, engaged with our services acting as panel members for referral orders.

BRENDAN FINEGAN, youth justice service manager, Hackney Council

I’m standing in an office as a YOT manager with only police officers for company. It reminds me of standing in a YOT office in Lewisham 22 years earlier with a police sergeant.

Then, we had a building, a sergeant, a desk and a chair with three legs, and the task to bring to life a multi-agency YOT comprising police, health, social services, probation and education. I was not even sure if there was a budget, but knew there was a strategic commitment to make the reforms happen.

Now, there is a budget (arguably far less than it should be), an office (or two), with facilities and information technology – resources absent in 1998.

We now have 36 staff, and 12 volunteers, in a variety of roles – in 1998, the thought of speech and language colleagues being a key partner was not even a concept. There is a functioning case management system that ensures we have strong evidence of our work and its impact.

What is different, is the Youth Justice Board (YJB) data requirements weren’t yet part of this world. The YJB remains a key partner for funding and information analysis – arguably less intrusive than at some points in the last 20 years and somewhat less influential. In 1998, colleagues in the pilot YOT areas had a Home Office guidance document – no national standards, case management guidance nor AssetPlus.

Then and now, children were at the centre of the changes; and protecting them and their communities has remained the constant. This common goal will continue.

HAZEL WILLIAMSON, chair of the Association of YOT Managers

The Association of Youth Offending Team Managers (AYM) is the professional association for heads of youth offending services and managers in YOTs in England. The AYM now represents almost all of the YOS in England, and the membership continues to grow.

I was appointed as the new chair in September 2020, and am looking forward to keeping youth justice high on everyone’s agenda.

Good practice is a key priority for the AYM and sharing best practice is supported through our Sector-Led Improvement Programme (YJSIP), a tripartite partnership between the AYM, the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales, and the youth justice sector. The programme has delivered peer reviews, mentoring, coaching, operational manager training, bespoke peer challenge, peer validation, sector self-improvement tools and ongoing advice.

To support the continued dissemination of outstanding practice, the AYM presents the John Hawkins Award to a YOT that can demonstrate creativity and innovation in its work with young people and families. John Hawkins was head of East Sussex YOT and treasurer of the AYM, until his untimely death in 2011. The AYM John Hawkins Award was established in memory of John, with agreement from his family. In 2019, this award was presented to Bradford YOT and the children from Bradford will help us decide the winners for this year’s award which will be presented (virtually) at the AYM meeting in November 2020.

  • For details on how to nominate projects for the 2021 award visit



By KEITH FRASER, chair, Youth Justice Board

The coronavirus pandemic is highlighting the resilience, skill and perseverance of youth justice staff. It is the dedication of these staff, and others to have contributed in the past, that have made possible the success of youth offending teams. My thanks go to all those who have been a part of this journey.

Moving into the next 20 years, there are three immediate challenges for YOTs.

Pandemic recovery

There is a significant challenge to understand and then deal with how the pandemic is affecting children in, or at risk of entering, the justice system. This includes the loss of loved ones, reduced employment opportunities, the negative impacts of digital poverty, a changing trust in authority and increased mental health issues, pressures on parents and gaps in education provision.

In addition, as the pandemic and its repercussions are felt over a longer period, we must recognise its impact on staff. It will take time to adapt individually, as teams and as organisations, and we must ensure staff have as much support as possible.

Bringing others with us

Over the last 20 years, YOT practitioners have improved their focus on the needs of the child. Using research around identity shift, trauma-informed practice and child-first principles, the sector has grown to better respond to children’s individual needs, rather than responding solely to the behaviour they display. As this evidence embeds into practice we have a collective challenge to ensure we’re not on our own. To make a lasting difference we also need to ensure policymakers, politicians and the public understand the evidence and support an approach that works for children. This could be a real opportunity for a model of youth justice that focuses on how best to support children in turning away from crime. We must also champion for a justice without unjustifiable disproportionality. I believe the YJB has a major role to play in achieving change in the system and we will need YOTs to support us in this to be successful.

Resources and impact

As the statutory caseload of YOTs has decreased over the past decade, so has the funding. YOTs, however, are working with caseloads of children with more complex needs and are also still providing valuable activities outside of this, notably prevention and diversion. This work is crucial to keeping children out of the justice system but it can be harder to measure the direct outcomes. We have a challenge to make sure a “payment-by-results” culture does not stop us from championing work that is the right thing to do and we must work together to demonstrate the impact it has.

We must continue to be as persuasive as possible in our conversations with funders, including around areas that are harder to measure. We must continue to work across other agencies regionally and nationally, to push for our seat at the table. This seat at the table will help us to ensure that those making decisions in other parts of the system understand and account for the impact it will have on the children we care for.

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