Custody beats schools

5th August 2005 at 01:00
Young offenders do better at exams when behind bars than when in Welsh schools, reports Nicola Porter

School-age criminals achieve more locked up in young offenders'

institutions than under supervised education in Welsh communities, according to a report on the youth justice system.

Inspection body Estyn found many young offenders gain nationally-recognised qualifications for the first time when behind bars. But they do not do as well after release because local youth offending teams fail to chart their progress.

Between 2002 and 2003 in Wales, more than a third of youngsters who had offended, or were at risk of offending, were not in full-time education because of exclusion or truancy.

Inspectors say many do not receive the legally-required equivalent of 25 hours' education a week for excluded pupils because LEAs are failing in their duty. They also found youth offending team education workers - who are often not qualified teachers - lacked influence in schools.

David Hopkins, acting chair of the Association of Directors of Education in Wales, acknowledged there were tensions between schools and youth offending teams. But he said it was often too late to turn around young people's underachievement.

He said: "We need to be looking at using a cross-agency approach to nip bad behaviour in the bud before it leads to exclusion from schools and the path down to supervised education. In this case prevention is better than cure."

Estyn claims young offenders achieve more in prison because learning can relieve boredom and means mixing with other inmates.

But the body said more needed to be done by the Welsh Assembly government and the Youth Justice Board to raise educational achievement on the outside.

This includes a requirement on youth offending teams to record and track young people's progress, more training for YOT education workers when dealing with council officers and schools, and improving individual education plans for offenders.

Between April 2004 and February this year, Estyn looked at five Welsh YOTs and two young offenders' institutions. The report said most young people in custody make good educational progress and were well-behaved in class.

But on release "these young people have fewer opportunities to receive appropriate education and training compared to their peers inside".

Inspectors attended three reviews of young Welsh people leaving custody - but none had a clear education plan in place. Nine of the teams told Estyn inspectors a lack of 25-hours-a-week provision is a huge constraint, hindering educational targets and achievement.

There are 17 YOTs in Wales, responsible to and monitored by the UK-wide Youth Justice Board.

A Youth Justice Board spokesperson said the improvement in results within youth offender institutions reflected recent "massive" investment in education and training. Prison teachers also had a captive audience and, once released, young people could lose interest.

Youth offending teams were developing and running new and innovative schemes designed to address this problem, she said. But she disagreed with Estyn's claim that workers in youth offending teams have little influence over schools.

Local authority chief education officers nominate the heads of such teams.

Dave Whiteley, the YOT operational manager in Neath Port Talbot, said regular meetings with schools and education officials were producing results.

He said: "We are luckier than most in having an education representative who has head-of-year status. It helps when we are dealing with schools, and increases co-operation.

"We look at each young person as an individual and discuss their educational needs in-depth," he added.

Caerphilly is also reviewing its procedures in a bid to help to raise educational standards among young people known to its youth offending team.

The National Assembly has recently set up a young offenders'

learning project designed to improve education and training provision for 11 to 25-year-olds known to YOTs.

Another pilot programme, providing personal support for young people discharged from custody, is due to begin in Denbighshire this September, and in Bridgend shortly after. An Assembly government spokesperson said it would help to tackle some of the issues around transition identified in Estyn's report.

In 2002-03, there were 385 school-age people from Wales in secure accommodation. Young people in custody should receive at least 15 hours'

education a week and the Youth Justice Board expected 80 per cent to return to full-time education, training or employment on release. But in Wales, only 62.7 per cent did so.

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