Reforms could be second best escape route for offenders

4th December 2009 at 00:00
As councils gear up to take responsibility for education behind bars, Kerra Maddern looks at whether the new plans can unlock young inmates' potential

Huge effort has been made over the past decade to improve education for vulnerable children. While attention has been focused on schools, however, critics complain that the same emphasis has not been given to young people with some of the greatest needs - those locked up for committing crimes.

At present, young offenders are entitled to just 15 hours of education a week and in 200708 only 3.6 per cent of inmates aged 15 to 21 were enrolled on GCSE or A-level courses.

Major reforms, due to be introduced next year, will increase that to 25 hours of teaching a week and, for the first time, give young offenders the same entitlement to educational opportunities as other students. But what are the challenges of educating young offenders? And will the reforms be sufficient to boost educational standards?

Changes to the law, brought in by the recent Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act, will alter the way courses for young offenders are run. Local authorities will become responsible for the education of young offenders after the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) is abolished next March.

With an increased entitlement to education for offenders, councils are concerned this could prove expensive. As yet, the Government has not guaranteed any extra funding to help local authorities meet increased costs.

Currently, each of the 12,115 15- to 21-year-olds locked up in England has #163;7,628 spent on their education each year - considerably more than is given to schools per pupil.

The Youth Justice Board (YJB) argues that education can be a passport away from crime. Its figures show that excluded pupils are almost three times more likely to commit crimes than their peers who are in school.

More than half of young offenders have literacy and numeracy levels below that expected of an 11-year-old, although their average age is 17. And learning is often problematic. Just 439, or 3.6 per cent, of young offenders were enrolled on GCSE and A-level courses during the 200708 academic year - despite many being long-term inmates who should have time to complete qualifications.

Most take life skills courses - short modules in various topics useful to them when they are released. From August 2007 to July 2008 a total of 30,407 courses and qualifications were started by 15- to 17-year-olds and 10,988 were finished.

But a recent report by the Offenders' Learning and Skills Service, part of the LSC, criticised the courses on offer, saying they do not "match current learning and skills needs".

It described difficulties getting teenagers to start and complete courses, and finding the right help for their needs.

Completion rates were made worse by the disruption caused when young offenders transfer between institutions, the report said. Training records did not follow them and students could not continue the same courses.

A National Audit Office (NAO) report has estimated that this unfinished education could be costing the taxpayer as much as #163;30 million a year.

Low completion rates are not down to a lack of ambition from young offenders, according to Pat Jones, director of the Prisoners' Education Trust.

"Many want to go to university, or they want to be trained in a profession like plumbing," she said. "But they might be sharing a cell with a person who watches loud TV, which stops them working. They might not have a desk, or access to a computer or printer when they need it and they have to wait for feedback by the post from tutors.

"Many 15- to 18-year-olds serve sentences of less than six months, so there isn't much time to make headway with education."

According to Ms Jones, prisoners in their mid to late 20s have the greatest thirst for knowledge, as teenagers are "still trying to sort out what's going on in their heads". But even those young offenders who are committed to learning can find it difficult to continue with their studies after being released.

A NAO report from 2004 found that just six per cent of youth offending teams said young people were able to continue their education after they left prison.

The teams cited logistical problems in finding suitable courses, a reluctance from some young people to attend and difficulties in persuading schools to accept pupils that might have been previously excluded.

The Government has brought in a number of changes to education in young offender institutions in a bid to improve standards, including, in 2001, daily literacy and numeracy hours.

In 2005 the YJB said fewer young offenders should be jailed and instead kept in open conditions, including residential schools, children's homes and "therapeutic communities".

Those sent to these institutions get full-time teaching and support from specialists. But YJB officials have now backtracked on this policy and are in the process of closing several secure children's homes.

"Children should be getting a full-time education while in custody, but it's clear their contact time is lower in youth offender institutions," said Sally Ireland, chair of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, a campaigning coalition of children's charities.

"The fact is secure children's homes are more expensive. It's clear far too many children are sent to prison, many for non-violent crimes such as breaching community orders, and they are no danger to the public."

According to Ofsted, education for adult and young inmates has improved over the past five years. In 2004, 78 per cent of courses for adults and young people were ranked as unsatisfactory or worse by inspectors. But an Ofsted report expected later this month is understood to show a considerable improvement on this record.

Prison education for under-18s is now matched to the national curriculum. Major institutions have new training facilities offering the chance to develop vocational skills such as catering, hairdressing, painting and decorating and computer literacy.

Jon Gamble, director for adult and lifelong learning at the LSC, does not think inmates will notice any major differences when local authorities take control of education for young offenders next year.

"Young offenders already get a mainstream curriculum offer, we do not see that this will be significant," he said. "But it's quite right that the act emphasises the duties local authorities will have."

Details on precisely how the new system will work, and how much funding will be made available to local authorities, have not yet been released by the Department for Children, Schools and Families. It is also unclear whether young offenders' entitlement to the national curriculum will, in reality, stretch to the full range of vocational diploma courses. These can be difficult to run in young offender institutions because they require access to equipment and links with local businesses.

Nevertheless, campaigners argue the changes could still make a significant difference to young offenders. Katherine Hill, parliamentary adviser for the Children's Society, said: "We hope this will put them on the right paths and enable them to reach their potential - and will allow them more entitlement than the limited number of hours they get at the moment."

Penelope Gibbs, director of the Prison Reform Trust's programme to reduce child and youth imprisonment, thinks the new law will force more people to take responsibility for educating child prisoners. "Schools don't want to offer them a place when they are released," she said, "but if local authorities are now in charge that should help this situation."


- Around 150,000 young people under the age of 18 enter the youth justice system each year, and about 70,000 of these are of compulsory school age.

- Of these, a third need help with reading and writing and 15 per cent have statements of special educational needs, compared with about 3 per cent of the general population.

- In 200809 young offenders spent an average of 15.5 hours per weekday in cells.

- An average of 1.8 hours per day was spent in education and training, with a further 0.7 hours spent on physical education.

3.6 - Percentage of young offenders enrolled on GCSE or A-level courses during the 200708 academic year.

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