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Beyond secure schools
Tom Gash argues that the current secure school approach is not sufficiently radical to make the difference it seeks.

This is a guest post by Tom Gash who has been working with Catch22 to respond to government’s ‘secure schools’ plans. In this post, he shares the conclusions from that work and argues that the current secure school approach is not sufficiently radical to make the difference it seeks.

The context

In recent months, I’ve been working with the charity and social business Catch22. They were excited about Charlie Taylor’s vision for secure schools and were keen to contribute to the ongoing conversations about how better to support young people in custody.

Our work found much to like in the early vision for secure schools, which promised environments of education, care and reform. But one of our initial concerns was confirmed by our policy analysis and modelling. The structural solution of a ‘Secure School’, implemented as Charlie intended, would address institutional weaknesses within the current system: rigid practice; lack of leadership freedom to recruit the right people, absence of imaginative local partnerships and collaboration with other statutory services.

Establishing a few secure schools won’t however tackle the systemic issue whereby statutory services operate in isolation, failing to reflect the complexity of chaotic young lives, the pathways into crime and violence, and the routes out of it.  

Sentences for under 18s tend to be short, but a young person’s connection to the education, health, social care, and criminal justice system, is usually long. Long too – and necessary – is the connection after a formal sentence. Positive relationships with family and friends, training and employment, housing, and a range of other community mentors all play a part.


The Ministry of Justice is struggling to deliver the ‘secure school’ recommendation, understandably. The department faces severe financial constraints and has many competing priorities, including stabilising a prison system in crisis. Might this be less challenging if the ‘Secure School’ recommendation was conceived as a cross Departmental opportunity to think differently about secure children’s homes, diversion, and resettlement? 

Improving youth custody is not enough

Our work, which included co-design work with young people, made us sceptical of the idea that it is possible to make a big difference through better youth custody alone. Children who end up in custody spend on average three months there. For half that time they’re adapting to what is a generally a disorientating experience and putting up a tough front. Ninety percent of children in custody have suffered abuse or significant loss and are naturally mistrustful of teachers and staff, so aren’t quick to engage. Stabilising influences that can encourage children to use the support they’re offered inside – for example, a social worker or supportive family member – seldom visit given the inconvenient locations.


Even if good work is done and progress made, most children are then sent back to their homes many miles away without a place at an appropriate school (65% of those in custody are disengaged from education and two thirds have special educational needs). They also often lack stable housing, with at least a third of those in youth custody and secure care requiring care, and many providers in that space reluctant to take serious offenders. What is true for those in the justice system is true for those in the secure care system that sits alongside it to support those who have not been convicted of a crime deserving a custodial term but are still judged a major risk to other and/or themselves. 

A new model

To make a lasting difference, we need a new model. It must focus on diverting children away from secure care and custody but also on ensuring that any time they do have to spend in custody or secure care is linked into a broader pathway of progression that supports personal change.

A promising model for this is found in Scotland, run by the charity Kibble. They don’t just have a secure ‘safe centre’ on their site in Paisley, near Glasgow, they also run a significant amount of non-secure housing with a specialist school attached. The non-secure housing and support allows them to offer children who would otherwise be sent to secure facilities a last chance, and allows progression from the safe centre for those no longer deemed as significant a risk to themselves or others, or if they’ve finished their sentences. In addition, Kibble runs intensive foster care services as the next step in progression, providing foster parents with the extra support and reassurance they need to take the risk of helping children with multiple needs and complex behaviour. The pathway of care is supported by staff moving with children to transition between different settings, and is linked to connections with the local community. Kibble has set up training in mechanics and catering which children can get to on day release.

Some of Kibble’s resident’s however, come from England – and ideally the model would serve a local community committed to reforming our broken system. The key connections for any new service are with local authority services: YOTs, social services, housing, health and education support, all of whom need to work together to transform outcomes. There is potential to harness relationships with local university, building partnerships to test exactly what works best in terms of education, health and rehabilitation outcomes. There could be scope for building family intervention services to ensure families can support their children onto better paths, to use educational technology to maintain continuity of learning, rather than leaving qualifications half-done, to build relationships with local employers.

The best use of public money is to keep children out of custody in the first place. This is why ultimately we need to invest in preventing the abuse, neglect and failures in our education, mental health and community services that provide a fertile ground for crime. It is also why ultimately, there is much to be said for a more devolved model of funding for youth justice. Currently, local authorities don’t actually pay for their failures to prevent crime, as central government pays the custody bill. But they aren’t sufficiently rewarded for their successes either. 

Next steps

Implementing a new model is not easy. But it is eminently possible to reform the system using the money that is already being spent across secure children’s homes, care and education services and to develop a truly local, integrated, and preventative service. There’s no need for new legislation to make this model happen. This is why Catch22 and Kibble are currently speaking to local authorities, city regions and national policymakers who recognise that there is potential to reform the system now, rather than wait for the secure schools programme to accelerate. 

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