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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

How to improve education for young prisoners

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Prisoners Education Trust urge the use of non-traditional methods to engage reluctant learners, including sports, arts and technology.

Better learning outcomes for young people in custody

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.

That’s the strapline on a recent (13 September 2016) report from the Prisoners’ Education Trust entitled: “Great Expectations: towards better learning outcomes for young people and young adults in custody“.

The Dickensian title refers to the fact that we are currently in a period of “great expectations” around prison education. Earlier this year two separate reports recommending the need to put education at the heart of custody were published ; the Coates Report focusing on over 18’s and the interim Taylor Report focusing on under 18’s. The Interim Taylor report begins to set out a new vision for youth custody and, as does the Coates report, lays down a challenge to have greater expectations of the learners, the staff, the quality of education and of the leadership needed to drive an aspirational culture.

Since the changes at the Ministry of Justice in early July, we are still waiting to hear if and when the final Taylor report will be published.

Context

Written by another Taylor, (Clare Taylor from PET), the report sets out just why educating young people in secure settings is such a challenge. Young people under 18 in custody have a range of neuro-developmental needs, mental health issues, experiences of care and disrupted education which will impact on their ability to engage in educational activities, as highlighted below:

  • Rates of ADHD are estimated at 30% which is five times higher than in the general population
  • 20% have identified learning disabilities compared to 2-3% of the general population
  • 43-57% are estimated to have dyslexia compared to 10% of the population
  • 60% are estimated to have speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) compared with 5-14% from a typical adolescent sample of the general population. This can lead to difficulties in listening, processing instructions and to understanding age-appropriate vocabulary with children appearing rude or uninterested as they find educational contexts difficult to follow
  • 50-80% are estimated to have had a traumatic brain injury compared to 10% of the general population with effects including fatigue and cognitive problems which may result in children being seen as lacking initiative (which could be mistaken for laziness), lacking inhibition (especially around inappropriate behaviours), or having difficulty following rules
  • The educational background of children in custody is poor—almost nine out of 10 boys (88%) said they had been excluded from school
  • Almost two-fifths (38%) said that they were aged 14 or younger when they were last at school
  • Fewer than 1% of all children in England are in care but looked after children make up 33% of boys and 61% of girls in custody

There are also specific issues for young adults aged 18-24, indicating the importance of young adult specific interventions in order to meet their needs:

  • Neuro-scientific research has found that the parts of the brain associated with planning, verbal memory and impulse control and the process of cognitive and emotional integration ‘continues to develop well into adulthood’ and therefore is not ‘mature’ in this conceptual sense until the early to mid-twenties
  • Levels of psychosocial maturity relating to development and behaviour that involves personality traits, interpersonal relations and affective experience have also been found to vary between individuals with some young adults being more like under-18s in their maturity of  judgement than they are like older adults, particularly those at the lower end of the age range.

The current state of the secure sector doesn’t make it easy to deliver effective education. Young people under 18 are often held far away from home and Secure Training Centres and Young Offender Institutions, like the adult estate, have become much less safe environments over recent years with the amount of violence rising sharply.

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Recommendations

PET says secure institutions need to adapt to these complex needs by focusing on individual progress and potential. Whenever possible, they urge the use of non-traditional methods to engage reluctant learners, including sports, arts and technology. They make a number of specific recommendations:

  • Attention to be paid to make sure each young person’s and young adult’s learning journey is personalised and aspirational
  • The MoJ should develop policies to ensure that the best people are recruited to work with young people, including better pay and conditions
  • Learning outside traditional classroom settings should become the norm
  • Resettlement needs to start from early on in a sentence to ensure there are smooth transitions to the community
  • The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) should make it a clear policy goal to make further significant reductions to the number of children under 18 and young adults held in custody
  • The MoJ should take a joined-up approach to the treatment of young adults in custody and should appoint a lead person for this work
  • The MoJ should conduct an urgent review of the current 30-hour educational contracts in the young people’s estate. These are not being met and could be harmfully inflexible

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