Mixed messages last week about the prospects for the governments flagship Secure Schools initiative. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority reported that the first school is “on track” to open in December 2022 but the Ministry of Justice Outcome Delivery Plan committed only to a start “by 2023.” Appearing before the Commons Justice Committee, MoJ minister Alex Chalk gave a somewhat downbeat account of “of trying to repurpose Medway”, the former secure training centre (STC) which will become the first, and quite possibly only, secure school.
In rather flippant evidence, Chalk told MPs “It is very much more complicated than simply turning the lights on and saying, ‘There you go, it’s a secure school. Off you go.’ There is a huge amount that needs to take place because, as you will appreciate, Ofsted needs to be satisfied that from an architectural point of view it qualifies as a secure children’s home (SCH) , which is materially different from a secure training centre, and there need to be all the paraphernalia of a children’s home—new fire standards and goodness knows what.”
Chalk added that only in September, will there be a final specification “for what it needs to look like, and therefore the final cost. What I can tell you is that the cost is not going down. It is a very expensive undertaking—very, very expensive indeed.” He complained that “ every time we go round Medway, we find other things that need to be sorted out.”
In terms of further secure schools, Chalk wondered aloud whether the forthcoming
Spending Review would provide the necessary resources. He would not be drawn on
whether the currently failing Rainsbrook STC would become the site of the second
secure school but thought it likely that the contract for the other remaining
STC, Oakhill, would run its course until 2029. That will be 13 years after the Government agreed with Charlie
Taylor’s vision that both Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) and STCs “should
be replaced in the longer term by smaller secure schools situated in the
regions that they serve”.
Chalk raised questions about the viability of that vision even in the long term. “We are going to need to ensure for some time yet that there is a blend of provision, so that all types can be accommodated. In the early stages, the people going into the secure school will be those who are most likely to get the most benefit out of the secure school. We have to keep our wits about us a little. We are talking about 550 of the most complex children anywhere in the United Kingdom, and we want to make sure that there is an estate that reflects that complexity”.
In fact his department’s projections – which don’t include children in STCs or SCHs -are for the population of under 18s in YOIs to rise from 400 last year to 700 in 2026. Given spending constraints, it’s hard to see much scope for reduction in reliance on the use of YOIs. Indeed, MPs were told that the MoJ are already considering placing girls under 18 back into them as a result of the Rainsbrook crisis.
Chalk made some Pollyannaish efforts to reassure the Committee that he would like to see “all our establishments move on a path to saying they are, in effect, places that are rehabilitative and secure, which sounds a bit like a secure school, I suppose, with a strong emphasis on the educational aspects, so that the differences between them do not so much fade away into irrelevance but are perhaps not quite as stark as in the past.” I don’t think that’s quite what Charlie Taylor had in mind.
There is an outside chance that a stalling youth justice reform programme in the MoJ could be offset a little if the Education Department start to expand the number of SCH beds. Since 2002, 16 secure children’s homes have closed. At any one time, around 25 children each day are waiting for a secure children’s home place and around 20 are placed by English authorities in Scottish secure units due to the lack of available places.
Remedying the shortage of SCH places might prove more sensible than pursuing the Secure Schools programme. And perhaps more attractive to Chalk and his Department who would not have to pay for it, up front at any rate.