Transforming Youth custody: secure college plans

17 Jan 2014

Rod Clark, PET's Chief Executive, writes:

Should troubled and difficult to manage young people be sent from their homes across the country and be detained in one large institution – a ‘fortified school’? The Government says this would rehabilitate them through education, reduce the sky high reoffending rates of young people and save money at the same time. Is this the all round win win it seems?

On Friday 17th January 2014, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced their plans in the Government response to the consultation Transforming Youth Custody.  It is not uncommon for documents on Government policy to attempt to square a circle between different aspirations.  This is no exception.  On the one hand there is a genuine desire to improve educational and social outcomes; on the other is a sense that bigger can be cheaper.  The two don’t necessarily fit happily together.

PET welcomed the way that the original consultation put “education at the heart of the youth estate” and that laudable commitment to education as a route to rehabilitation is still up in lights; “education is the cure” is how their press release put it. And that is certainly in line with our own recent government-backed research, evidence that proves learning can reduce re-offending.

There are other ways in which the government has recognised points that PET and others made in response to the consultation.  Whilst recognising the importance of basic literacy and numeracy the response acknowledged that only a broad, exciting and creative range of learning opportunities coupled with specialist support will engage people who have had bad previous experiences of education. They have taken on board the point that resettling young people back into their communities and into continuing education is vital to any long-term success and that individual learning plans, links to local Youth Offending Teams and use of schemes such as release on temporary license are essential. In particular we were pleased to read in the Government’s report that they want “a culture change from places of detention to places of learning.”

But the part of the announcement that grabbed the headlines on Friday was the concept of a “Secure College” with a pathfinder to be built holding up to 320 young people in the East Midlands, alongside Glen Parva YOI.  There is a clear aspiration that the new larger institutions can reduce the current average unit costs of the youth estate from the £100,000 a year for each place.  But it is much less clear how a network of a few big Secure Colleges will support the positive educational goals the response espouses.

The report recognises that the time in custody can only be a fraction of the educational journey for most young people.  Most young people are only in custody for a few months and the real challenge is creating an effective link to the learning in the community preceding and following the spell in prison.  Fewer larger institutions will make the spell in custody more remote for many more young people; that will not make the maintaining and building of local links any easier. 

There is a rationale for size in community secondary schools and colleges; larger numbers of students can support a wider curriculum.  But the 320 children planned for Glen Parva Secure College will range in age from 12 to 17 with very different levels of attainment; they will arrive at random over the year without any regard for an academic timetable and mostly stay only a few weeks or months.  And it is a sad truth of our young people in custody that many of them have come to be there through gang affiliations that mean it is simply not safe to allow members of rival gangs to come together in the same classroom.

And building new and bigger is a fraught and risky business when it comes to prisons.  As Nick Hardwick, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons said in the context of the troubles at HMP Oakwood, “New prisons are very difficult to set up successfully and... although there are some advantages of scale, big prisons are more difficult to run”

In our response to the consultation last year PET offered a different model.  Would it not be better for young people in custody to be closer to their families and support networks, based in a smaller, safer building where they could be given daytime access to the community and all its services such as education, counselling and health care? Young people who need to be detained all day and night could complete courses via distance learning and using computers to supplement classes and teaching. This could be a really effective way to help them complete their studies.

Even on the ambitious programme the Government has announced the new pathfinder Secure College will not be open until 2017 at a cost of £85m.  In the meantime, the education contracts in the existing YOI estate will be re-competed this year.  It is good that the Youth Justice Board who have overall responsibility for the YOIs will lead on this rather than having a split responsibility with the Department for Education.  And the aim to increase the hours of education is welcome (although the means of funding it opaque).  The Government has the opportunity now to realise its positive agenda of an engaging curriculum and better links to community provision within the existing estate.  And costs are reducing as the population of young adults in custody comes down so there are savings to be used to fund better provision.  If the Government does make those improvements within the existing estate (and I fervently hope it will), perhaps it will propmpt the question of how large Secure Colleges are supposed to offer a further step forward.

And if the investment in education of young people pays the returns we all hope and expect, it will raise again the challenge we also raised in our response to this consultation of why such investment should stop at age 18.   Many adults missed out on education as children; we would like to see greater priority for learning across all prisons for all age groups. Government-led analysis has proved that learning in prison works.

Prisoners' Education Trust in partnership with Kinetic Youth and alongside many organisations responded to the Government’s consultation in April 2013.