A better way to educate insiders

16th September 2005 at 01:00
Young offenders benefit from a regime which first explores their emotional and reasoning skills, writes Kate Wolstenholme

The summer has been spent measuring pupils' successes by exam results that may or may not be accurate reflections of their achievements.

As politicians fight to justify the statistics, what we should really question is whether students leaving school are equipped to deal with the next stage of their lives.

It is in this light that I read in TES Cymru ("Custody beats schools", August 5) that young offenders make better educational progress when behind bars than "on the out".

While the fact that they are forced to be in education plays a large part in their success - there is nowhere to run in a young offenders' institute - this cannot be the sole reason for their success when locked up. Rather, the way in which they are educated there is also significant.

I have been working with Hillside secure unit in Neath on a joint project extending young people's interest in participation (funded by the Electoral Commission). Hillside is a local authority secure unit, providing a children's home setting for young offenders and children at risk.

For logistical reasons it is difficult to have a school council in a place like Hillside, because the turnover of young people is high. Those young people aren't, however, lacking in experience of meetings: they frequently meet social workers, psychologists, lawyers, and others. What they often lack are the skills to respond appropriately in such meetings.

The young people I met were largely 15 to 18-year-old boys. What I had not considered was that these teenagers have led lives that are unfathomable, and have established codes of behaviour quite different from the norm.

Therefore, it is not only their academic potential that is challenged while inside, but also their reasoning and emotional responses to their actions.

Consequently, personal and social education (PSE) is important in young offenders' institutions.

In Hillside, the subject is tailored to ensure the young people engage with the outside world. There are few classrooms where a discussion on fair trade would lead to such animated talk about importing heroin and cannabis, as happened in Hillside. But there are few classrooms where such a high proportion of students have had the exposure to drugs that young people there have.

Working with the care and teaching staff, my challenge was to engage students in the essential skills needed for participation, while also getting them discussing PSE issues.

To do this effectively I based sessions around a video of the real-life story of Simone Valentine (screened on Channel 4 a few years ago). Simone is bullied at school and becomes a truant, finally getting involved with drugs and crime. This input was suggested by Hillside staff, who felt it related directly to the young people's lives.

Each week we looked at an issue within the film, such as how the police protected the rights of the majority. At the same time I tried to introduce new skills, starting with empathy and then shared decision-making and negotiation.

The young people concluded the project by making their own ending to the video, using masks and their own environment as the setting. They took the project to heart and did a lot of filming in their spare time on their residential units. In their ending, Simone got taken into secure accommodation but was tempted back into crime and drugs soon after being released.

This ending reflects the fears (and sadly the realities) of many young people in Hillside. It is not only that young people "on the out" have a choice about education, whether to attend or skive off. They are dealing with the pressures of established social groups in which they feel comfortable.

In secure accommodation, students are supported in every decision they make, allowing them to make considerable gains compared with their educational achievements beforehand. However, with the pressures of reintegration and social conformity, it is often education that is de-prioritised once they are again outside secure accommodation.

So what needs to be addressed is not only the question of final results, but also linking education and students' life experiences. Making PSE a subject that covers issues affecting students' day-to-day lives from the outset is a good start.

Students learn the key skills of communication and teamwork more quickly if they address issues they are familiar with. Working collaboratively with the young people, the care workers and teaching staff, it has become obvious to me that this approach can produce success.

It is too easy to assume that exam results are top of everyone's priority list, when some students are merely working out why they feel and act the way they do. The results follow, as statistics on secure accommodation show.

Kate Wolstenholme is assistant education officer for the Council for Education in World Citizenship Cymru. She is continuing her work with young offenders and pupils in referral units in a new project called Inclusion (supported by the European Commission), which develops employment skills for disadvantaged youngsters

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