Hard labours at the 'criminals' finishing school'

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
JON Wainwright's employment tribunal case once again turned the spotlight on how we treat inmates of school age.

Official figures show that of the 200,000 young people who enter the youth justice system each year, 7,000 receive a custodial sentence.

Many of those will go to Feltham young offenders institute, where boys and young men aged between 15 and 21 serve prison sentences or are placed on remand.

Once described as "a finishing school for career criminals", Feltham's image has long been of a brutal institution struggling against Dickensian conditions.

But things are changing at the prison. And although they are unlikely to escape its physical confines, many inmates, especially those under 16, will not avoid compulsory education.

For it is in the classroom that Feltham's teachers try to find out whether educational background - or lack of it - helps determine who will or will not become a young offender. Could a teenager who has rejected education, or been excluded from it on the outside, embrace it from the confines of a cell?

A recent MORI survey found that excluded school children are three times as likely to offend, and that their offending is more frequent and serious.

Recent figures available from the Audit Commission show that on any one day just under 400,000 out of eight million school children who should be in school are not there.

Of that figure, only 40,000 had been authorised by the school.

The Youth Justice Board says nearly half of young people in custody have literacy and numeracy levels below those of the average 11-year-old. A quarter have numeracy levels more common in a child of seven or younger.

During his employment tribunal case, Mr Wainwright, who until November 2000 was head of basic skills at Feltham, described a harsh and demoralising regime for both staff and inmates.

He blamed prison management for imposing a teaching system that was both stressful and demanding for staff and which failed to meet the needs of pupils, who neither want to learn or who cannot learn.

Poor behaviour, low attention span and physical and drug abuse were cited by Mr Wainwright as some of the obstacles which made it difficult to break through the cycle of re-offending.

He said: "We are trying to teach people who have rejected the education system on the outside or who have been rejected by it. If these kids could not be forced to accept mainstream education at school, why should the same approach work in prison?

"These are not sixth-formers. Trying to teach conventional subjects in conventional ways has not worked, and will not work."

Mr Wainwright, who twice walked out of disruptive classes, was highly critical of three-hour teaching sessions without a break, a lack of qualified classroom assistants and "dumping" - placing inmates expecting to attend one class into another where a last-minute vacancy arose. He said:

"My function changed on an almost daily basis, covering different teaching groups who were expecting different subjects, to cover for absent teachers.

"The teaching sessions were too long, there was no proper education plan and the pupils were being coerced into something against their will."

He said that before and since the nervous breakdown which forced his departure from Feltham, many other staff had become ill because of the demands of the regime, or had simply left.

He said: "For a teacher, Feltham is not a place for glory or for someone who is ambitious or career minded. The regime did not allow for any of the theoretically good ideas to work because the staff are under so much pressure."

The turning point for Feltham was the damning report arising out of the October 2000 visit by HM Inspector of Prisons. The report, which found that many young inmates were spending most of the day confined to their cells, was particularly scathing about education provision, especially the teaching of literacy and numeracy. But less than a year later came evidence that things were improving.

A follow-up HMI report found "an establishment whose culture, regime and vision were fundamentally changed" and that, while much remained to do, "Feltham was off the critical list".

Of education, it said: "Considerable progress has been made, most notably in terms of the relationship between learners and staff and in relation to the range of courses offered and the effectiveness with which they are delivered."

Paul McDowell, Feltham's deputy governor, revealed during Mr Wainwright's tribunal hearing that yet another inspection had taken place in the education department in recent weeks and that it "has shown further improvement". But the success of the impact, if any, that education is having on the rehabilitation of young offenders can only be measured in a reduction in the numbers entering the youth justice system.

It is clear that the failure to educate young offenders poses a serious problem.

Lord Warner, chairman of the Youth Justice Board, in a speech to the Secondary Heads Association conference last month, said: "While we know education failure is closely associated with offending, we also know that sustaining engagement in education - or successfully re-engaging young people in it - is one of the most effective ways to reduce the likelihood of offending."


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