When Rob, aged 17, arrived at Hindley young offenders' institution near Wigan after a conviction for burglary, it was the low point of his life.
"I felt very small," he says of his arrival at the secure facility, which houses about 270 boys aged from 15 to 18. Years earlier, he had been "kicked out" of school for fighting and smoking. He spent a couple of years doing nothing, just staying at home, until he was able to enrol at college.
By that point, he had a young son with his girlfriend. He says it was the pressure of providing for them and keeping up with his college work that led him to commit his crime. But out of that crisis, he finally got the support for his child that he needed, with relatives stepping in to care for him. Now Rob is able finally to focus on his education. He has achieved his first qualification, an NVQ level two in catering, at the prison, which offers a wide range of courses but has particular strengths in hospitality and construction, industries that have a track record of accepting ex-offenders. Initially he wanted to be a chef, but his ambitions are growing.
"I want to go back to college, get my A levels and go to university. I want to be a GP. I realised all the things that were wrong in my life and started to fix them," he says. "Why not push myself? Why not be a GP? I just need to get my A levels next."
Rob faces huge challenges to achieve his ambitions. But in one way, luck is on his side. He is due to be released just before Christmas, and so at the start of January, one of the two usual recruitment points for colleges, he will be able to enrol.
For others, the wait for a college course can derail any progress they have made at a young offenders' institution. People who work with young offenders say the days immediately after release are make or break: if a teenager can quickly be settled with housing and a place in education, their chances of reoffending are significantly lower.
"They're highly motivated when they leave here, but if they can't find a course quickly they go back to their old lifestyles," says Mairi-Ann Macleod, offender learning and skills service manager at the prison.
Graham Robb, a former headteacher and Youth Justice Board member, adds: "The first day in education or training is critical. They can feel totally unsupported and wonder what everyone does or doesn't know about them."
Liam, who works on the same catering brigade as Rob, was one of the unlucky ones: he is completing his second stretch at Hindley. He had been released in May last year and was due to start college in September. But by August, he was back in prison, this time for dangerous driving.
"I tried to go back to college, but I'd missed too much of the course. I had to wait until September. By then, I had ended up back here," he says.
A delegation of college staff, headteachers, local authority officers and young offending team workers gathered at Hindley recently, as part of an initiative to build stronger links between education and young offenders' institutions, aimed at ensuring that teenagers are no longer released into the community with nothing to do.
Robb explains that the visits began last year with a group of school and college leaders visiting Rochester's young offenders' institution in Kent. It made a powerful impression. "One head of an academy bumped into two of his students in the corridor. The impact on him was profound," he says.
Problems for offenders can begin as soon as they arrive in prison. Young offenders at Hindley go through a five-day induction period, where the prison gathers information about their prior education with the aim of helping them to continue on their courses.
"If they're transferred during exam time, as long as we have a few hours beforehand, we can have all the documentation transferred and they can take their exams with us," says Louise Higginbotham, project manager of the North West Resettlement Consortium, a pilot project aimed at better integrating the youth justice system with education and children's services. It has seen the proportions carrying on in education after leaving custody rise from 46 per cent to 73 per cent.
But in many cases, it is hard to get accurate and timely information. The prison has to deal with 113 separate local authorities with differing systems. And many of the teenagers have been out of education for several years before they arrive in prison.
"In the past, it's really been up to a committed teacher who takes the initiative to contact the institution," says Victoria Bedford, senior development adviser at the Youth Justice Board.
Such arrangements can easily break down, as they did for Mark, who arrived at Hindley in February as a Year 11 student about to take exams in the summer. At an initial meeting, it was agreed he would do a BTEC business course and take a science exam and a Spanish GCSE - prison staff said he was a fluent speaker and writer in the language. After that meeting, however, communication broke down and the school failed to send details of the exams he was sitting. It also sent science worksheets that he had completed three years previously.
One possible solution has been taken up at Wigan Council, which has appointed a dedicated staff member to liaise with the prison, even taking responsibility for teenagers from other local authorities. The prison also hopes to encourage more partnerships with colleges: by working with Oldham College, it was able to seamlessly continue one teenager's course, which the prison did not normally offer. On release, he simply picked up where he left off. The issue is particularly pressing because the average time in a young offenders' institution is 80 days: just enough to disrupt a course and leave a long time before it can be resumed.
Acceptance in colleges
While schools are also encouraged to collaborate with prisons, the Youth Justice Board says that colleges often bear the brunt of the work. "There are headteachers who will not welcome a child back into school from custody. Schools are supposed to keep places open for eight weeks. That often doesn't happen," Robb says. In other cases, ex-offenders prefer college to school after earlier bad experiences.
Robb points out that colleges have been working to eliminate barriers for ex-offenders, offering interviews through video-conferencing and uploading prospectuses on to the prison's computer network, because the teenagers are not allowed free access to the internet. The Manchester College, which also runs the education service inside Hindley, is also introducing "roll- on, roll-off" courses, which should allow students to start learning whenever they are released.
But staff on youth offending teams visiting Hindley say that one of their biggest challenges is persuading colleges to accept violent offenders, and some colleges refuse point blank. "Some of these young people represent a risk to themselves or others. But some colleges aren't using that information properly," Robb acknowledges. "They may say, `If there's a risk, we won't let that child in.' We need to work with colleges so they know precisely what the risk is and how to mitigate it."
Staff at Hindley point out that violent offenders are only a small proportion of youths in custody. They also experience the other side of the coin: students who refuse to believe that colleges will accept them as ex-offenders. One inmate would not even apply until the college had been called and had given assurances that he could be admitted.
Even within the prison, there are conflicts between the demands of security and the education service. A gang member was restricted from accessing parts of the prison where some education and training takes place. And a Muslim teenager identified as having "extremist" tendencies was initially barred from working in the mess, where catering students learn their trade by cooking for staff. However, in both cases, they were eventually allowed to access the educational opportunities.
This perhaps reflects the belief of prison education staff that there is a moral purpose in going the extra mile to ensure that these teenagers can complete their courses and, in many cases, achieve qualifications for the first time.
Macleod, manager of the offender learning and skills service at Hindley, says: "We have a parents' evening once a term. Last time, everybody who was there ended up in tears. These are parents who have never, ever heard anything good about their sons in the past. They come to a parents' evening and they're told that they're doing well, they're achieving well. They're in tears. We're in tears."
Photo: Catering students who learn their trade by cooking for staff. Photo credit: Floyd Blake