Ben Rochelle is a Senior Political Consultant at The Whitehouse Consultancy, specialising in education policy.
Before the general election the Government put forward the Prisons and Courts Bill, which would have made plain in UK law that a core purpose of prison is to reform and rehabilitate offenders, not just punish them for crimes they have committed.
This marked a fundamental shake up to the way in which the law perceives the prison system and youth justice.
But the bill was abandoned in April, and the measures contained within in it were not resurrected in the Queen’s Speech last month. Whilst policy relating to Brexit is inevitably priority, the Government must implement key policies around youth justice which will help to improve the welfare, health, and education of some of the most vulnerable young people in this country.
Last year Charlie Taylor, the new chair of the Youth Justice Board, produced a review of the youth justice system and made a series of recommendations to government. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) responded to this in December with the promise of taking forward a range of initiatives which have significant potential to improve the outcomes of young people in the secure estate, and go on reducing the number of young people in the justice system.
At the heart of the Government’s initiatives are plans to establish two secure schools, each of 60-70 children, in the north and the south of the country. These will be run, governed, and inspected as schools, drawing on the expertise of successful alternative provision schools where necessary.
The vision is for young offender institutions and secure training centres to eventually be replaced by these establishments, which will be focused on developing education, skills, and employment opportunities for young people so that on release they can go on to lead positive and fulfilling lives.
Last year David Cameron talked about bringing the academies model, which has in recent years revolutionised our schools’ system, into the youth justice system. These new secure schools will provide for that by giving greater freedoms to their head teachers to recruit staff and commission services.
Currently, amongst the young people going into secure institutions over 60 per cent are not engaged in any sort of education when they arrive, often having been out of school for long periods of time through truancy or following exclusion. Indeed, 86 per cent of boys in young offender institutions reported having been excluded, either temporarily or permanently, in the past and half of 15 to 17-year-olds in young offender institutions have the literacy or numeracy levels expected of a 7 or 11-year-old.
That’s why education is integral to the transformation that the Government wants to see in the youth justice system: making young offender institutions and secure training centres, like schools, engines of social responsibility.
In addition to this the Government is committed to developing a new pre-apprenticeship training pathway, that will start in custody and eventually ensure that all children and young people are in education, training or employment on release.
We currently have a woeful rate of reoffending in our youth justice system – one of the highest in Europe. Over two thirds of young offenders released from secure institutions reoffend within a year of release, and numbers continue to climb. That’s why supporting and equipping young people with training, employment, and education before and on release is crucial, and it’s encouraging that the MoJ is taking steps in this direction.
There are some exciting developments taking place across the country where young people in the secure estate are gaining access to life-changing education opportunities. For example, Weatherby Young Offender Institution has recently formed a partnership with Leeds Rhinos Rugby Club whereby the club now run sessions for the boys at Weatherby one day a week.
The institution is also training boys as army cadets, and working with their education provider to deliver the Bronze Duke of Edinburgh award. This is no doubt boosting self-confidence and increasing self-esteem, which helps to make sure these young people develop skills critical to getting on in life.
There is clearly a firm desire in government to go on reducing the number of young people in the youth justice system, and increase the focus on measures around rehabilitation and restoration. But the new administration must act quickly to make sure that it implements the best legislation and the best outcomes for our children and young people, and give them vital opportunities to turn their lives around.