• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Tuesday 27th January, 2009

Is zero tolerance back in from the urban cold?

A study commissioned by the largest UK teachers union examines whether a poor physical environment outside the school gates harms what goes on inside. The findings are inconclusive but there may be enough in the mix to revive interest more widely in broken windows theory. Carried out by Leicester research firm, the Perpetuity Group, One more broken window: The impact of the physical environment on schools focuses on childrens behavior, truancy rates, exam results and teachers morale. Using a case study method, Perpetuity produced detailed qualitative reports on three schools. They found that the views of teachers, parents and pupils were mixed: although there was evidence that pointed towards the harmful effect of school surroundings on pupils behavior, it was far from conclusive.As well as providing a comprehensive survey of the interaction between school children and their environment beyond the school boundaries, the report also raised questions about how far schools should work in conjunction with councils and urban planners. The study borrows its title from influential work in New Jersey in the late 1970s by James Wilson and George Kelling. In their article Broken Windows (1982), they argued that serious crime is in part the consequence of allowing people to get away with petty misdemeanors. The marks on the physical environment that result from petty law-breaking - such as litter or graffiti put out a damaging signal that more general criminality is acceptable. Despite enjoying widespread popularity, most notably as part of New York Mayor, Rudolph Giulianis zero tolerance policing policy, the theory has suffered from a lack of robust empirical evidence. However, late last year researchers at the University of Gronigen in the Netherlands, published a randomized control trial that supports the fundamental argument. The Dutch team staged a number of potential crime situations, controlling for the influence of the physical environment, and observed peoples reactions. They found that even small blights on the physical environment were associated with increases in littering, trespass, and even theft. Although the results can say nothing about long-term impact, they amount to a first step toward a sturdy evidence base. But back to schools in the UK. Perpetuity researchers collected context data at each of the three sites and conducted interviews and focus groups with staff, parents and teachers. The physical environment was assessed using a tool called the Crime Opportunity Profile. Schools volunteered to participate by responding to an advert in the teaching press. The three that took part were varied in terms of location, age group and perceived problems. The first was a mixed comprehensive in a declining coastal town in Southern England with one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the UK. In that case the focus was a nearby disused fun fair. Some associated its presence with low aspirations among pupils; others claimed it instilled a desire to leave. There was also evidence to support the notion that rundown streets led to graffiti crime. The second school was an inner-city primary in the North-East situated near boarded up housing, flanked by three motorways and lacking nearby play space. Teachers believed that the physical environment, especially the lack of recreational space, generated poor behavior leading to lower performance in school. The report points out that this goes beyond Broken Windows theory, suggesting a possible connection between physical space and child development. The third was another mixed comprehensive in an English coastal town but the crime rate was below the national average. The nature of the physical blight was quite different: a public footpath ran through the school grounds. Although those interviewed reported that the footpath was the cause of poor behavior and increased truancy, there was no robust evidence to back this up. The footpath suffered from littering and graffiti and was also a venue for antisocial behavior out of school hours. Although the Perpetuity study offers some insight into how physical environments might affect school performance, the design was unable to quantify or to compare impact. Nor did the study consider schools whose environment was considered to encourage learning. Schools were also self-selected, meaning that teachers were likely to have preconceived ideas about negative effects. The research team also acknowledged that they were unable adequately to separate the physical and social environment.See:Broadhurst K, Owen K, Keats G and Taylor E (2008), One more broken window: The impact of the physical environment on schools, NASUWT (National Union of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers), BirminghamKeizer K, Lindenberg S and Steg L (2008), The Spreading of Disorder in Science 322, 5908, pp.1681-1685Wilson J Q & Kelling G L (1982), Broken windows: The police and neighbourhood safety, in Atlantic Magazine, March 1982

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