Children’s education in custody: “Too many failed by the system”

Home > Children’s education in custody: “Too many failed by the system”

Francesca Cooney | 24 February 2020

At any one time, up to 1,000 children can be in prisons or secure training centres. Francesca Cooney, our Head of Policy, reviews the recent report from HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) on children in custody and outlines what it tells us about access to education.

Every year, HMIP publishes a report of survey responses from children who are in Secure Training Centres (STCs – secure accommodation holding children aged 12- 17) and Youth Offender Institutions (YOIs – larger establishments for boys, run by HMPPS). Over 700 children completed the survey in the last year (84% of the eligible child population), so it gives us a good basis to understand their experiences.

This is the first time that children in the three STCs (Medway has been closed since the research was carried out) and the five YOIs have been asked the same questions. Before this, it was not possible to compare the experiences of children in these two different types of custody.

Trying to create a safe environment impacts on attendance at education

Shockingly, nearly two thirds of children reported having experienced control and restraint (force used by staff to try to prevent harm) while in custody. This high number clearly shows that there are a lot of fights, assaults and other incidents in these establishments. If we compare this to the adult estate, where 13% of men say they have experienced use of force in the last six months, and 4% of women, we can see the difference.

This paints a picture of turbulent environments where disruption to activities is commonplace. This has a huge impact on children, their motivation, and their ability to be settled and comfortable.

The report highlights that establishments often struggle with ‘keep apart’ lists, when boys are assessed as a risk of violence to each other, and kept separate for activities. For some children, it means very long periods being locked in a cell. Inspectors found that the policy often prevented the delivery of education and other activities, particularly at Feltham and Cookham Wood.

This paints a picture of turbulent environments where disruption to activities is commonplace. This has a huge impact on children, their motivation, and their ability to be settled and comfortable. Many will find it hard to concentrate on learning and some will be frightened of attending education.

Access to education and training

For the report, children were asked about their access to education, jobs and vocational training. Overall, 83% of children were involved in education, and there was no significant difference between STCs and YOIs. At Medway, all children were involved in activities.

Children were also asked if they had learned anything that would help them when they were released. Half said they had.

Participating in education can open up life chances and develop new opportunities for children. However, in seven places, between 6% and 26% of children were not participating in any activities. Worryingly across all establishments, only 6% of children had a job, with the same number involved in vocational training – so there is an insufficient range of activities to incentivise and motivate them.

Children were also asked if they had learned anything that would help them when they were released. Half said they had. Again, children in STCs were more likely to think that the education and training they had received would be helpful in the future.

Staff supporting education

Children were also asked whether they were encouraged by staff to attend education, work or vocational training. Overall, two-thirds said they were, although the numbers were lower for black or minority ethnic children. (62% compared to 74%) Children in STCs were more positive about staff support.

In YOIs Keppel and Feltham, only one in five boys reported being out of their cells for more than two hours at weekends

Time out of cell, in the open air and access to sports

Children were asked if they spent more than two hours out of their cell or room on weekdays and at weekends. The expectation is that children should be unlocked for at least ten hours every day. Overall, around three quarters of children said they could during the week but this fell to 38% on Saturdays and Sundays. Children in STCs generally reported better time out of their room. In YOIs Keppel and Feltham, only one in five boys reported being out of their cells for more than two hours at weekends.

Just under half of children at YOIs said they could go to the gym or play sports, important activities to support self-esteem, and physical and mental wellbeing

Children were also asked if they could go to the gym or play sports, important activities to support self-esteem, and physical and mental wellbeing. Just under half said they could, but this was higher for children held in a STC and the numbers ranged from 14% at Feltham and 76% at Medway.

What does good provision look like?

It’s worth highlighting the latest inspection report on YOI Parc, from October 2019 as an example of good provision. The education department had good community links and there were good opportunities for boys to gain qualifications, including GCSEs and AS/A levels. In addition, Esytn (who inspect education and children’s provision in Wales) reported good success rates in vocational and employability courses.

Interestingly, wing staff had received training for and were involved in providing learning support. This supported children’s progression but also improved communication between wing and education staff about behaviour, or other concerns.

The report shows that too many children in custody are failed by the system and not able to engage in education, particularly in YOIs. They deserve better and establishments must ensure their needs are met.

Inspectors found that the education team prioritised health and well-being. They provided cereal bars or fruit and milk or water to improve the boys’ hydration and concentration. Moreover, some of the boys who had difficulty accessing education received effective support from therapy dogs to improve their mental health and communication.

Too many children failed by the system

Overall, the report shows that too many children in custody are failed by the system and not able to engage in education, particularly in YOIs. They deserve better and establishments must ensure their needs are met. The difference in children’s experiences in custody is stark, but the best establishments show that it is possible to support them to make progress. Creating a safe space for studying and training is not easy, but it is essential if children in prison are to reach their full potential.

© Prisoners' Education Trust 2020

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