Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Secure Schools : Sea Change or Fantasy

Prison reformers tend to be  optimists so many will be hopeful that a new generation of secure schools recommended by the Charlie Taylor youth justice review will fare better than the institutions they look set to replace. When Taylor spoke at a Prison Education Trust (PET) event a few weeks ago I was struck by how he did not mention the word offenders once. His welcome focus was on how best to meet the needs of children and young people through education irrespective of how they had found their way into the justice system. It was refreshingly different from the narrow obsessions with reducing re-offending which have come to define the discourse on children in conflict with the law.

In the interim report of his review, in just ten pages Taylor proposes a sea change in youth custody which would see young offender institutions removed from the prison service and replaced by small secure schools. When I became a member of  the Youth Justice Board in 1998, Lord Ramsbotham had recommended removing prison service responsibility for under 18 year olds. But it was a step too far and we tried instead to reform the prison estate.  We struggled to make a prison culture sufficiently child aware let alone centred- it took years of negotiation with the POA to persuade staff to swap their traditional black and white uniforms for a less threatening outfit; and the rules and regulations guiding adult establishments have continued to dominate life in young offender institutions. Tearing up the current system and starting again was one of the suggestions made at the PET event and this is what is being proposed now. Taylor’s idea –and in truth it's not much more than that at present –is not a million miles from what I suggested when I stood down from the Board in 2006.

But I am afraid that I have real doubts about whether Secure Schools will come to fruition any more than the Secure College which was abandoned last year. Though the new idea is much, much better, it has pounds signs written all over it. Taylor’s report admits moving to an estate which comprises “a larger number of small, education led establishments presents financial and operational challenges, and we are exploring a range of options to achieve this vision”. These are precisely the financial challenges that have seen a dramatic decline in places in local authority run secure children’s homes- the closest we have to secure schools.  Building and running several hundred places in small local units simply looks unaffordable in the short term. Little wonder that the Prime Minister committed only to explore using the free school process to set up these "secure alternative provision academies". I titled my blog on his prison reform speech "rhetorical policy making " but wish I'd kept it for this one.

Taylor wants local rather than central bodies to assume responsibilities for the costs of his schools  in the medium term.  As I argued recently , it would be better to move quickly to devolve custodial costs to local authorities and Police and Crime Commissioners, so that they could use the funds to commission a range of options- secure, semi secure and community based measures. The school model sketched out today could be one option but intensive fostering placements, family therapy or better casework supervision might be equally relevant and effective. In truth, institutions of any kind have rarely been effective with young people- not surprising perhaps when the last thing most parents would sensibly do with a child who goes off the rails is to confine them 24/7 in the exclusive company of other such children.

Investing in services which can assist such young people without locking them up should produce better results. As Taylor turns his attention to courts, sentencing (and presumably the age of criminal responsibility) he has the chance to recommend a legal framework within which such services can be more extensively applied to young people who currently go to custody.

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