'Prison education can unlock youngsters' potential'

Young people in prisons should not be overlooked when it comes to educational provision, Lisa Capper writes

Lisa Capper

Nacro (National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders) is working with young people in prisons to improve their education

Exclusion from school is often the ultimate indicator that a child is stuck in a cycle of underachievement.

The Prison Education Trust warns that 85 per cent of young people within youth custodial settings in England have been excluded from school. In addition, a third of boys and almost two-thirds (61 per cent) of girls in youth custodial settings are looked-after children.

Young people in custody, who are predominantly male and aged 15 to 17, often present with a complex set of social, emotional, psychological and educational backstories that require tackling head-on before any progress can be made. 

Read more: 'Where's the public outcry over prison education?'

More news: 'The value of prison education is compelling'

Background: ‘What I’ve learned from teaching in prisons’ 

At Nacro, we have seen first-hand that with the right interventions, this cycle can be broken, and young people can want to start to follow another path of positive behaviours for learning and to achieve educational success.

We are known for our support delivered through adult custodial resettlement, housing, health and the education of excluded young people within local communities. We began providing specialist educational support at Medway following the high-profile Panorama programme highlighting serious failings in 2016.

Since then, we have gone on to transform the educational experience of young people at Medway and enabled many to see themselves in a new light. At the heart of the Nacro education approach is the choice of vocational routes.

Finding a sense of purpose, thinking about what and who they could become in the future, and having the experience of creating something through learning a skill, can be one of the most motivating factors these young people have ever experienced.

'Passports for success'

One of our students, Harry*, really enjoyed working outdoors, growing fresh vegetables that were later to be used in our catering class and in the Medway main kitchen. He explained that before taking up the horticulture route, he felt a pervading sense of hopelessness and could not get up in the mornings.

His teacher recommended him for temporary release and he began a work placement once a week with a park ranger where he learned about felling trees, coppicing and forestry management. This placement meant that he could use his horticulture knowledge, work experience and accompanying life skills to build up his CV and most importantly, as a reference.

Moving away from the previous curriculum of myriad different qualifications has been important. Offering more substantial technical qualifications with an opportunity for work experience of some kind has meant that learning is much more valued. 

Core GCSEs are also offered with embedded maths, English, science and IT standing the learners in good stead for when they move on; so they take their “passport for success” with them, and do not have to start over at the next destination but can continue their academic and vocational journey.

The arrival in prison can be traumatic 

Alongside tracking educational progress, we have developed a way to track a range of softer indicators, scored by the learners and teachers. This helps to show when a young person is ready to step up their learning goals and also, where possible, to go out on license.

We have had 12 young people out on license in the last 12 months, including those who have attended an FE college, worked for a local authority, worked in catering and in hair and beauty organisations.

Assessment is a critical aspect of the education journey at Medway. Young people may not be there for very long, with over two out of five on remand. Therefore, quickly getting to grips with creating an academic and pastoral baseline matters.

It is started through a solid induction process which extends past the very often traumatic arrival period and means that young people can understand what they know, and where they can get to, either at Medway or at their next destination.  

A vision of changing lives

There is no getting away from the fact that some young people in custody have made awful mistakes and committed crimes. Behaviour and compliance can be a challenge beyond the ordinary, however, the teachers and support staff are 100 per cent committed to Nacro’s vision of changing lives.

At Medway, we have created the tools and curriculum to create hope, progression and most importantly, re-invention. This adds up to a strong framework for re-engagement in learning and ultimately, is at the heart of successful resettlement.

For six years, our “Beyond Youth Custody” research and practice programme, sought to challenge, advance and promote better thinking in policy and practice for the effective resettlement of young people leaving custody – a priority for the Youth Justice Board.

The new Ministry of Justice and Department for Education secure school model is to be created on the Medway site in 2020. It aims to put education centre stage; we already know there is a solid base to build upon.

Lisa Capper is the principal and director of education at Nacro 

*Not a real name

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