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Teaching young offenders to code: three month update

by Andy Mayer
Posted on 07 February 2014
read time: 6 minutes

We're three months into a 12 month experiment in teaching young offenders to code through a work placement at Yoomee – and so an update is well overdue to share our experiences so far.

The young person we're working with is a 19 year old called Tom and he's just turned a corner in terms of confidence with coding HTML, CSS, Bootstrap and some jQuery. But the most significant achievement is that he hasn't reoffended and has had his electronic tag removed – breaking a five year pattern of re-offending and custody. This alone is an amazing result. And by diving straight into work with Tom, we've quickly learnt an awful lot about what works and what doesn’t. So I want to share some of these lessons with you and look at what the next steps are.

Hello my name’s Tom. Well where to start? I was 14 when I got kicked out of school. I left with no qualifications whatsoever. I was getting into trouble with the police all the time and that’s when I started selling drugs around Sheffield city centre.

I was always looking up to drug dealers thinking that’s what I want in life – a nice car, a nice house – and that resulted in me going to prison when I was around 16. I was there a few years and when I got out I thought to myself: “What's the point in been a drug dealer if you have to hide all the things you work for? Could I not get all these things by working?” That’s when I decided "Yeah, I'll get a job" – like one would just fall into my hand! I was so wrong. I ended up working in a factory for minimum wage doing 12 hour night shifts. It was unbearable so I quit and went back to what I was doing before, which landed me in custody once again. I was recalled, served my time and was released.

Andy offered me a 12 month contract with Yoomee. I'm learning everything from scratch. The team are so supportive and it’s probably the calmest environment I have ever been in. I’ve made many changes in my life since I started and now I see the life I was living before was terrible. This is the longest time I’ve been out of custody and also the first time I’ve been off tag in nearly 6 years. I’m not saying I’m completely perfect, but I’m trying to be the best I can be and I think if more people like me were given this opportunity they would definitely take it. I’m three months into my contract and I feel like I’m learning so much.

The first lesson

In the first week I realised Tom needed a lot of 1:1 mentoring whilst working through the online educational resources, and we didn't have enough spare resource in the Yoomee team to sit with Tom for extended periods. And so I put a call out on Twitter and Facebook for geek volunteers to spend some time supporting Tom in our office.

I was amazed to get a response in a matter of minutes and four local mentors volunteered to spend half a day each for six weeks with Tom in Yoomee's office. Kit,Eve, James and Andy are all local software developers who want to help but can't commit massive chunks of time. They're all amazing people, but fairly typical of the geeks in communities across the country too, in that they all believe an understanding of code unlocks a life of opportunities and can help solve difficult problems. Yoomee can easily provide the office environment if these volunteers relieve the pressure on our team.

Building a network

This led me to realise that a network of volunteers to share the load is the only approach likely to work. So we developed this further to build a supportive network around Tom to provide not only coding, but also pastoral, support from a local youth charity (thanks to Pippa Carter from Forge Youth). In the diagram below I've called the volunteers 'code-coaches', they work alongside a 'host business' with an entrepreneur who's the 'business owner':

Successes so far

Without going into too much detail, here are the elements of our approach that have proven successful so far:

  • Tom responds extremely well to being treated like a normal member of the Yoomee team, with the same holiday allowance, relaxed working conditions and involvement with company social events. Trying not to be the ‘odd one out’ is a big motivator for Tom modifying his behaviour
  • Despite a lack of education, learning to code from online resources isn't a big intellectual jump for Tom, once all the other challenges (see below) are removed
  • Working with volunteer mentors is a massive motivator, especially knowing these people are giving their time for free and they'll return next week to review his progress
  • Some mentors have built personal relationships with Tom that extend beyond coding, and are able to share information about lifestyle and career paths
  • Having this apprenticeship has prevented Tom reoffending and enabled him to get his electronic tag removed
  • The power of online connections (social media, email lists etc) has given Yoomee quick access to a big support network that otherwise would have been difficult to reach
  • Having an experienced youth worker in the support network from Forge Youth, whom Tom respects as a friend, rather than from a statutory body is a massive benefit.

Challenges

The following were the main challenges, but these are diminishing over time as Tom gets into a routine:

  • Attending the office five days a week in the face of a disruptive home life was the first major obstacle to progress
  • Weekend sleep/party routines are not conducive to keeping regular healthy attendance and focus during the week
  • There were initially too many options for online learning, without clear goals and rewards. There needs to be more structure with a focus on seeing results quickly
  • Some of the online resources assume too much and make big jumps. (We found Code Avengers to be the most useful starting point)
  • Tom didn't have the skills or experience to plan beyond one day at a time and learning to think and plan in long-term ways was a big challenge
  • Demands and communication from official agencies are often ad hoc and don't support Tom in planning his office schedule and being in the office like a normal employee (ie. Youth Offending Team, Benefits Office, Housing Department etc).

Next steps

We'll continue to support Tom and learn from his learning at least until his 12-month contract finishes with Yoomee in September. But we'd also like to formally define this approach so we can offer a proper curriculum and proven approach to other tech companies which might want to help young offenders learn to code. To do this we want to run a 6-month pilot project with dedicated management resources in place, and test the approach on a couple more young people too.

We'll shortly have finished defining this pilot and the resources required, and then we'll be looking for funding sources. If you'd like to help with funding this pilot, then please do get in touch.

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Original blog post

Posted on 07 February 2014 - By Andy Mayer
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