Education is giving young offenders a life sentence

1st September 2017 at 00:00
The current education system is failing those who have had brushes with the law. But a new free school could change things for the better, writes Andrew Morley

There was “not a single establishment that we inspected in England and Wales in which it was safe to hold children and young people” – so Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons annual report concluded.

Further evidence of how the current system is failing these young people comes from a recent Department for Education and Ministry of Justice analysis, “Understanding the educational background of young offenders”.

The report found that among young people sentenced in 2014, between 78 per cent (for those cautioned) and 94 per cent (those sentenced to less than 12 months in custody) had a record of persistent absence from school. Twenty-three per cent of those sentenced to less than 12 months in custody had been permanently excluded prior to their sentence date. The most shocking finding was that only 1 per cent of those sentenced to less than 12 months in custody had achieved 5 or more GCSEs or equivalent graded A-C (including English and Maths), compared to 59 per cent for all pupils.

At the Campus Educational Trust, we have long-argued that improving education provision for those that have had contact with the criminal justice system is the single most impactful thing we can do.

The most rigorous causal analysis on British data (The Crime Reducing Effect of Education, concluded, “The implications of these findings show that improving education can yield significant social benefits and can be a key policy tool in the drive to reduce crime.”

While the government’s commitment to place education at the heart of youth justice is welcome, there are a number of reasons to be concerned about an innovation focused solely on secure schools.

First, there is a real danger that it misses the importance of ensuring the continuity of education provision from custody to their reintegration into the community.

A new approach is essential. The Campus School – our proposal for a school exclusively for young people who have had contact with the criminal justice system and are not in settled education, training or employment – is intended to be part of this.

A community school with education at its heart, the Campus – which has been approved as a free school and is in its pre-opening phase – will address the problems of the young people attending. It is intended to support a young person’s reintegration into the community through extended day release in the lead-up to their release.

A second issue with secure schools is that it will take significant time and money to get this right. The prevailing circumstances require something more urgent and less expensive.

Virtual realities

Since 2014, local authorities in England have been obliged by law to appoint what’s called a “virtual head” to promote the educational achievement of its looked-after children, wherever they live or are educated.

They are responsible for an up-to-date roll of looked-after children, and are in charge of gathering information about their attendance and educational progress, ensuring that they have effective personal education plans and lobbying the local authority to see the educational achievement of its looked-after children as a priority.

Replicating this idea for young people who have had contact with the criminal justice system and are not in education or training could have a similar impact and provide momentum for improving their results.

We have been collaborating with colleagues at the UCL Institute of Education to develop a proposal for testing this in Haringey.

In developing what we are calling a “virtual campus”, we are mindful that the local youth offending team has a key role to play, too. However, they are stretched and do not necessarily have the influence to provide the support most likely to help.

The virtual campuses would provide additional and immediate support to young people who are in the youth justice system. It has the additional advantage of providing experience to inform the development of the Campus – which we are on track to open in 2020 – and improve the likelihood of it being successful.

Doing nothing is not an option. While we should continue to explore how we can remodel youth justice provision to ensure that education is at its heart, young people currently in the system cannot wait on this. We owe it to them to be bold and build on good work that can be found elsewhere in education, lest we condemn a generation of young offenders to a life of being troubled and communities suffering the consequences.

Andrew Morley is chair of the Campus Educational Trust and former chief executive of the London Criminal Justice Partnership

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