A criminal case of underfunding

24th October 2003 at 01:00
An urban authority in the Midlands recently estimated that 800 of its young people are out of school "officially". But it also reckons another 900 self-exclude - 900 for whom it has no idea, with any precision, where they are or what they're doing. Together, these figures amount to about 10 per cent of the borough's 11 to 16-year-olds - equivalent to two of its average-sized schools.

The reality of permanent exclusion is the chance of progression into a life on the fringes of legality. Many of these young people graduate to a criminal career.

All prison facilities for juveniles are inspected every year and receive a full unannounced inspection every three years. Ofsted and the Adult Learning Inspectorate look at education within these institutions annually.

But despite this heavy regime, 20 per cent of juveniles say they are bullied in their first few days inside; 35 per cent say they feel unsafe.

It would be interesting to compare these percentages to the figures in our schools.

Young people arrive in prison with educational disadvantages that make any secondary school seem like the groves of academe. Almost half have been in care; 52 per cent leave school at 14 or younger; 84 per cent have been excluded; 31 per cent have literacy levels of no more than a seven-year-old; and 60 to 80 per cent are below level 1 basic skills - well short of employability standard. Given this sort of catalogue, it's little wonder so many go on to be repeat offenders; the recidivism rate is 72 per cent. This is despite the Government's belief that rehabilitation and restorative justice should be the cornerstone of practice.

For 2002-3, the standard spending assessment per child in secondary schools in England was pound;3,475. The cost of education per child in a young person's prison is pound;1,800 a year. First, we create a tranche of young people who cannot read, cannot get a job, are put in care and have been excluded from school, then we fund their education at a figure pound;1,675 less than those who have their freedom - although the average attendance at education in juvenile prison is 68 per cent. For the 32 per cent who do not attend, little can be done to break the cycle of potential recidivism.

The prison service is committed to maintaining the principles of the Children Act. But it is not required to do so in practice, which means children in prison are often ignored by other departments and bodies responsible for their welfare. The Prison Inspectorate report comments:

"Again and again we find that establishments have no effective child protection procedures in place." As if it were not bad enough that the vulnerable do not have that protection, Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, "regularly finds that the area child protection committee, charged with ensuring safeguards for all children in its area, ignores, or often refuses to co-operate with, young offenders' institutions". What an indictment.

Harsher sentencing is an easy battle cry. At the last election, the Government promised more money for juvenile and young offenders'

institutions, but any extra finance is being soaked up by the rise in numbers, further diminishing the paucity of provision. It's time Messrs Blair, Brown, Blunkett and Clarke dug deep into their departmental pockets and gave this group of forgotten, vulnerable, disturbed and deprived young people something of their birthright in our civilised society.

Mike Hardacre

Mike Hardacre has worked as a head in two inner-city comprehensives and has an interest in prison education. He now works as an educational consultant

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