John Drew - Leading Social Campaigner

John Drew is an adviser and campaigner on social justice who specialises in children's issues.

As an 18 year old in Freshers Week in 1970 John Drew was hanging around campus with little ambition other than to get himself out of bed before midday, when a passing student, Chris Downes approached him with the promise that if John joined him for a Wednesday afternoon, the experience would change his life. He did and it did. 

John - now a leading social campaigner who headed the Drew Review into South Yorkshire Police's handling of child sexual exploitation - was taken to a community arts and sports project called New Planet City (NPC), aimed at 14-18 year olds not attending school and run by a group of community activists convinced that a new approach could save these disengaged teenagers from falling into criminality. 

“It completely changed my life,” says John, better known as Jerry during his Lancaster years.  “It was meeting these children, who were not much younger than me, but whose whole experience of life had been very unsatisfactory. One boy I got to know early on was sent to custody, I know not why, but I knew from our first contact that he had a lot to offer.” Angry and confused about the injustice of what he had seen, John rang his army officer father, whose response was: “Find out about it!” From then on his life took on a campaigning zeal which has shaped every area of his life since, despite his adolescent determination not to emulate the path of his mother, who worked for the NSPCC. 

Wednesday afternoons were a focus during his times at Lancaster. He had a motorcycle so was a hit with the youngsters at NPC. The aim of the scheme was to build an adventure playground with the young people on a disused railway goods yard donated by British Rail (now the Sainsbury’s site on Cable Street. Later the project attracted financial support from Lancashire County Council. The innovative scheme became a trailblazing model in the youth justice world and was later featured in a core volume on the subject, Out of Care: The Community Support of Juvenile Offenders, by Lancaster University academics David Thorpe, David Smith, Chris Green and John Paley (Allen and Unwin 1980). 

John’s newly-ignited passion for justice shaped the course of his studies. During his South London childhood, he had developed an awareness of social and political issues, marching against the Vietnam war whilst still at school. He arrived wanting to read History and Lancaster was one of a handful of establishments that would accept him without a foreign language qualification, but now the political touch paper was lit. 

It was the early days of the university, with only 2,000 students and John loved the sense of freshness and a desire to create a different academic environment.  Academically John was in his element. As his interests developed, he found himself studying joint honours History and Politics. He remembers the quality of teaching as exceptional, and was especially inspired by American Studies expert Dr Bob Bliss (who still sends his ex-students daily email bulletins about an individual born on that day). There were also Martin Blinkhorn’s teachings on Latin America, which opened up a completely new world to him and lectures by John Wakefield, who was in the process of setting up the Sociology Department. This led to his rapid involvement in student politics, culminating in his election in his third year as the university’s first sabbatical officer for the Student Union. 

This was the era of lock ins, protests and occupations of university administration buildings, with what he describes as ‘a lot of stamping’, but he did not allow it to disrupt his studies. Some of the actions were in support of, or in protest against, local, national or international politics, others were in support of more general causes such as freedom of speech, particularly academic freedom during the Craig Affair in 1972. 

“Lancaster allowed me to begin to link together the things that are not right,”says John. “To live through those times as an undergraduate was hugely educative. A great many of us graduated with a healthy distrust of those in authority and ultimately (we hope) were more careful in the exercise of such authority when, and if, we eventually gained it.” 

By the end of his days at Lancaster, with degree in hand, John was clear about his desire to improve the world, starting off in Preston as a Social Worker, dealing with children in trouble, in much the same way as at New Planet City. He moved from this into child protection and fostering and was soon an area officer with responsibility for a third of Preston’s social services. Further social work jobs, and postgraduate qualifications in Social Work from Sheffield and Bradford universities  took him to Essex and Tower Hamlets, before his appointment as Social Services and Housing Director at the East London Borough of Redbridge in 2000. 

From this he moved back into youth justice, becoming Chief Executive of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales. He was awarded a CBE for services to youth justice in 2013. With his wealth of experience, he was asked to head the independent review into South Yorkshire Police’s response to child sexual exploitation, working with Sir Alan Billings, which he relished. The Drew Review was published 23 March 2016. 

The experience of working to give a voice to young girls who had been ignored has been an enriching one for him. He was inspired by those South Yorkshire Police officers and others he encountered who had been battling on the teenagers’ behalf and to see them continue their fight for justice for these youngsters. He feels that there is now more openness to children’s voices, but feels lessons still need to be learned about why these girls were failed. 

Currently he is a member of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, and works for the Prison Reform Trust, as a Visiting Professor at the University of Buckingham, as Chair of Medway Safeguarding Children’s Board and Chair of the Criminal Justice Alliance. Professor Drew provides national and international consultancy on a wide range of social welfare issues. He was an advisor to the Parliamentarian’s Inquiry into the Youth Court (Carlile Inquiry) and is currently Secretary to the Laming Inquiry into children in care and the criminal justice system. Since his retirement from the Youth Justice Board in 2013, he has also been able to resume his involvement in Labour politics which he was forced to limit as he rose in the local authority ranks. 

John still relishes his Lancaster experience, and retains links with more than a dozen people who were there at the same time as him. He says: “Lancaster was really inspiring. It developed in me a thirst for new ideas and learning. It was a passport to my current fulfilling and satisfying life.”