Charlie Taylor Promises "Radical and Fundamental Change"
Prisoners Education Trust’s third academic symposium was held on Monday 25th January 2016 at London South Bank University. The aim of the day was to bring together academics, researchers, practitioners and policy specialists with an interest and expertise in young people and young adults involved in the youth justice system. Throughout the day panels and roundtable discussions were focused around exploring some of the challenges and solutions to effectively meeting the holistic learning needs of young people in custody and through the gate. Setting the scene for the day was Charlie Taylor, who is leading the review into the youth justice system which was announced by Michael Gove in autumn last year. He congratulated PET on their ‘fantastic work to improve lives’.
Specialist skills needed
Mr. Taylor started his speech by stating how ‘enormously impressed’ he had been by the dedication of staff and Governor’s he had met on his visits to various youth justice establishments, including Secure Children’s Homes (SCHs), Secure Training Centres (STCs) and Young Offender Institutions (YOIs). However, despite their best efforts, there was much to be improved. He described the reported increases in violence as ‘worrying and unacceptable’. He also questioned whether all staff had the right skills and experience to effectively manage behaviour and also develop and deliver meaningful interventions.
Learning from international good practice
Throughout his speech Mr. Taylor was keen to highlight examples of good practice from England, Scotland, Wales and Spain as sources to draw on and learn from. At HMYOI Polmont in Scotland investment, infrastructure and putting education at the heart of everything was ‘impressive’. Hillside SCH in Wales was noted for its good links with the community and young people taking exams at local schools. Lastly Diagrama secure units for young people in Spain were praised for their ability to re-engage children with education and re-integrate them into their communities successfully post-release. This was achieved by keeping numbers of children small (less than 90); employing specialist and qualified educators who are skilled at developing positive relationships with children, keeping a strong emphasis on post-release throughout their sentence, giving them greater freedoms and responsibility as they progress in their sentence and maintaining family contact throughout.
Focus on English and Maths
Mr. Taylor commented that establishments could ‘take the easy road’ and let young people only take part in classes which they enjoy most, however he indicated that there was a need to focus on English and maths too, as young people ‘must not leave prison unable to read’.
Lack of autonomy for leaders
Mr. Taylor highlighted that the lack of autonomy that leaders and Governor’s have within their institutions was restricting their ability to innovate and to recruit and train. He compared this with the freedoms Head Teachers enjoy. Mr. Taylor indicated that he was looking at good practice from outside of the justice sector, he is himself a former Head Teacher of The Willows, a school for children with complex behavioural, emotional and social difficulties.
‘Expectations not high enough for children in custody’
Mr. Taylor was clear that the focus of custody must be on rehabilitation, with high quality education at the heart of this. However, frequently children’s potential is limited because standards are not set high enough for them. He argued that ‘expectations should not be adjusted just because young people present with challenging behaviour’. Young people should be given opportunities to access the right education, develop skills and resilience in order to improve their life chances. He said this was crucial given what we know about the links between poor education outcomes and re-offending and similarly between higher education and positive outcomes. He was clear that young people in custody must receive the highest of quality from all professionals working with them, including teachers.
He has observed that for many young people a period in custody may be the first time they have successfully engaged with education in their lives. Seamless transitions post-release are therefore ‘crucial prepare for the damage from poor engagement and attainment’. If opportunities to build on positive outcomes achieved during custody are not followed through all the good work could be undone ‘in a trice’. In particular he highlighted that it is not acceptable for a young person to leave custody without knowing where they are going to live.
The situation over who has responsibility and is accountable for children is a further challenge identified by Mr. Taylor. Local authorities have little say over what happens to a young person whilst they are in custody and custodial institutions are not responsible for what happens after release. More consistency and co-ordination is required. Possible solutions may lie in more locally based and commissioned services.
Finishing his speech Mr. Taylor said that the challenges facing the youth justice system are significant, but that we have the opportunity to make ‘radical and fundamental’ changes.
We look forward to reading the interim report due to be published by the review team in the coming weeks and using the day’s discussions to help respond to his forthcoming call for evidence.