'High-quality education can transform the lives of young offenders'

Learning opportunities that are high-quality, personalised and aspirational can boost the life chances of children in custody, writes Nina Champion

Nina Champion

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For another year running, Ofsted's annual report has shown that education in most of our young offenders’ institutes is chronically underperforming, failing the young people for whom the chance to find and develop new skills could be a lifeline out of crime and social exclusion. As Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman put it, some of Britain’s most vulnerable children, including those in custody, are “out of sight and out of mind” when it comes to quality education, handed a  "de facto" life sentence due to the poor education they receive.

Of the three Secure Training Centres (STCs), two are rated "inadequate" and one "requires improvement". Only four out of 10 Young Offender Institutes (YOIs) had an education provision that was "good". 

Charlie Taylor, who led the government’s major review of the youth justice system last year, said that the “most worrying” finding from his visits to YOIs was that he “rarely encountered the culture of aspiration which is evident in the best alternative-provision schools”. While YOIs are required by law to provide 30 hours of education a week, this does not correlate to education that is engaging, nor to provision which offers the chance to progress. It is too often a matter of quantity over quality.

Dozens of distance learning courses

It was an awareness of this that led Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) to expand its provision to under-18s this year. We have since funded dozens of distance learning courses – mostly GCSEs and A levels – so that young people can study in their cells. This holds a practical advantage in institutions where people are often sitting behind cell doors for 23 hours at a time. It means that students can choose to study according to what they are interested in, and what they want to be when they grow up – be it a course in personal fitness instruction, sociology or mathematics, all of which we have funded for under-18s this year.

Unlike traditional classroom teaching, in independent study the young people are developing new and important skills such as organising their time, taking responsibility for meeting assignment deadlines and motivating themselves to study in the evenings and weekends. “You’ve got to be determined and have willpower,” explained one learner I met recently. Not only are these valuable study skills, but are key elements of developing maturity and life skills, which contribute to the attitudes and behaviours required to move away from crime.

PET also set up a Learning Together partnership between Goldsmiths, University of London and HMP/YOI Isis in south-east London, allowing young adults in prison to study social science alongside undergraduate students. Motivation, rather than academic credentials, was the selection criteria. Learners were given an insight into university life, and some began to think, "Perhaps this is for someone like me." Some have become peer mentors, helping other learners in subsequent classes. Others are planning to apply to university, something unimaginable at the beginning of their sentence. They have been able to develop critical thinking skills, which have given them a new perspective on society and their place within it. “Social science opened my eyes to things that I didn’t think about when making decisions that got me here in the first place,” said one participant.   

Keys to progression

One of the most important lessons from PET’s research into education in the young people’s estate is the importance of individual relationships – not only with teachers but also with the prison officers who can, literally, hold the keys to that person’s progression. Our annual Prisoner Learning Alliance awards invite prisoners across the estate to nominate staff who go "above and beyond" to promote education. We had four winners in the youth estate category last year, including a 27-year-old officer at HMYOI Werrington who was described as “a rock in all YPs [young people’s] lives” by the boy who wrote in to nominate him. Not only do these staff members help build to knowledge, but they also help to develop trust and positive attitudes towards learning and the value of hard work. They can create a "culture of learning" in the prison, meaning safer, more hopeful, places for children to live. 

Education has been proven to significantly reduce the risk of reoffending. Learning opportunities that are high-quality, personalised and aspirational can transform the lives of children in custody, offering better futures for their families and their communities. Governors in adult prisons are preparing to take control of education budgets next year, allowing them to tailor what they offer according to the needs of their population. We expect the government to extend this to YOIs when current contracts expire, offering an opportunity to rethink what education for young people and young adults in custody looks like, and improving Ofsted outcomes, and most importantly learners’ lives, as a result.

Nina Champion is head of policy at the Prisoners’ Education Trust

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