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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

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

Secure schools to replace youth custody?

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In order that education is truly placed at the heart of youth custody, we must reconceive youth prisons as schools. The review’s ambition is for smaller custodial establishments which are created as secure schools...

Charlie Taylor’s 1st report of his review of the youth justice system

One of Michael Gove’s first decisions as the new Justice Secretary in September 2015 was to order a review of the youth justice system to be carried out by leading educationalist Charlie Taylor (you can see the review’s terms of reference here.)

Although the review was not due to be published until the summer, Mr Taylor has (9 February 2016) helpfully published an interim report of emerging findings whose headline recommendation is that

Young offenders should serve their sentences in secure schools rather than youth prisons

His main rationale is that the youth justice system would be more effective and better able to rehabilitate young people if education was at its heart. He argues that smaller, local, secure schools would draw on educational and behavioural expertise to rehabilitate children and given the skills they need to thrive on release.

Key findings

The report reviewed the secure estate and summarises a number of key findings:

  • Since 2006/07 the number of children in custody has declined by 64% to its lowest recorded level to around 1,000
  • The result of this drop is that 12 establishments have been closed, but this has been done in a haphazard way with the result that many  young people are now living a very long way from home.
  • Of those children who remain in custody, mos of whom are “more persistent and troubled” offenders, too many – almost two thirds – reoffend within a year of release
  • Around 40% of young people in under-18 Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) have not been to school since they were aged 14, and nearly nine out of 10 have been excluded from school at some point
  • Children in YOIs are only receiving 17 hours of education every week against an expectation of 30 hours

Recommendations

In response to these findings, Mr Taylor makes four key recommendations:

  • Re-design the youth estate so that it can cater for a smaller, but more challenging, group of children in custody.
  • Place education at the centre of youth custody, by drawing on the culture of aspiration and discipline which is evident in the best alternative provision schools.
  • Replace youth prisons with smaller secure schools which help children master the basics in English and maths as well as providing high quality vocational education in a more therapeutic environment.
  • Give local areas greater say in the way children are managed by devolving responsibility, control and money from Whitehall.

It now seems compulsory for all government to include recommendations of devolution. Although it’s clear that there are many advantages to local leadership and for local areas to develop responses to local problems, it’s critical that there are sufficiently rigorous inspection processes to ensure that vulnerable young people are receiving a good quality, non-abusive service.

The central recommendation of this report is found in paragraph 18 which I reproduce in full below:

In order that education is truly placed at the heart of youth custody, we must reconceive youth prisons as schools. The review’s ambition is for smaller custodial establishments which are created as secure schools, set up in a similar way to alternative provision free schools in England, and located in the regions that they serve. As schools, such establishments would be inspected under the education framework and held to the same standards as other alternative provision schools, while ensuring proper scrutiny of the safeguarding, security and rehabilitation services. Rather than seeking to import education into youth prisons, we should create schools for young offenders in which we overlay the necessary security arrangements.

The report also contains a shorter section on youth offending services in the community and praises models (such as Surrey’s) where the youth offending service has been successfully integrated into the local authority’s wider youth services, meaning that a child or young person in the criminal justice system can access the same broad spectrum of provision as a child who is homeless, not in education, employment or training (NEET), or has other welfare needs.

The report argues that this approach promotes a more comprehensive response to young people who offend and increases the opportunity to divert young people from the youth justice system and into effective services, while allowing greater flexibility in the length and intensity of support provided.

Analysis

It’s hard to find fault with this approach which addresses many of the concerns about the current system.

However, details so far are very flimsy and closing most of a secure estate is not a simple process. Much more of a potential stumbling block is the fact that the new system sounds like it will be very expensive to develop and run — has the government the political will to invest money in young offenders when it continues to cut public services everywhere else?

Looking ahead

The remit for the remainder of the youth review is to examine the way young offenders are dealt with in court and the sentences available, how to prevent offending in the first place and how to reintegrate children back into the community following custody.

 

 

Related posts you might like:

The State of Youth Justice

The number of children and young people in the youth justice system fell again in 2016/17 but knife crime was up and those detained were more likely to be restrained or separated.

Read More »
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