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Frances Crook's blog · 13 Jul 2016

Secure schools are the wrong answer to the wrong question

Charlie Taylor’s review of the youth justice system is complete and is currently sitting on a desk in the Ministry of Justice. When it will be released is hard to say in the current political turmoil, but we are hopeful that it will be published in the next week or so.

From his interim findings in February, the many talks he has given and from numerous meetings with the Howard League, we know that there will be much to welcome. Charlie Taylor’s thoughtful and considered approach to the review, not least that he clearly sees and describes children, no matter what they have done, as children first, is a welcome departure from many of his predecessors.

We also know, however, that a sting in the tail is coming, and it’s a big one: ‘secure schools’.

Yes, the current way that the majority of children are locked up isn’t working. Yes, the small number of children who need to be deprived of their liberty should be held close to home. Yes, children do better in smaller institutions where they can get to know staff and their individual needs can be met.

But secure schools are the wrong answer to the wrong question. They threaten repeating the mistakes of the past and expanding the number of children in prison.

In the 1990s the Howard League opposed the creation of the secure training centres (STCs) alongside the Detention and Training Order – a new short prison sentence for children followed up by supervision in the community. Although well intended in principle, in practice these measures led to an explosion in the numbers of children behind bars. The idea that children could be ‘trained’ in just a few weeks or months was too tempting to magistrates. After twenty years of campaigning, it is now accepted that STCs are failed institutions for a failed sentence.

Looking back on the rhetoric at the time the STCs were set up, it is exactly what Charlie Taylor is saying. STCs were originally intended to be smaller units than he is proposing but with the same focus on education. Even Borstals back in the day, were meant to be institutions that focussed on education and training young people. For over 100 years well-meaning people have reinvented penal institutions to educate children and they have always ended up in abuse. Over 1,000 adults have come forward with evidence of years of sexual abuse and violence inflicted on them in Medomsley, a penal institution for boys that closed and where an STC was constructed on the site, only for that to be closed amidst controversy and allegations.

The proposals for secure schools risk repeating this. Although there is no suggestion that they would be run by the likes of Serco and G4S, with around “60 to 80 places” secure schools would not be small, they would be the size of a prison.

And they are simply not necessary.

The number of children incarcerated has fallen substantially in recent years, but there are still around 900 children locked up in England and Wales at any one time. That is far too many and the focus should be on reducing the numbers, not working out yet another way to lock kids up. This could be achieved by addressing the over-representation of BME children, reducing the use of remand and scrapping the needless, and harmful, Detention and Training Order.

For the irreducible few who do require a period behind bars, we know what works: small, local secure children’s homes have been working successfully for decades to provide the best care and rehabilitation. These homes are homes first, but they do provide excellent education and care too. They hold only a handful of children with a great many professionals providing education, psychology, mentoring, and substitute parenting.

Due to haphazard and incompetent decision making by the Youth Justice Board (YJB) there are no secure children’s homes beds left London and the South East. If we closed down Medway STC and Feltham prison, we could use the capital and continuing revenue expenditure for secure children’s home provision for the area.

For the majority of children, the best possible thing is to keep them as far away from ‘the system’ as possible. The Howard League’s work with the police is a prime example of this – the number of child arrests has fallen dramatically, which has led to huge reductions to the numbers of children in the youth justice system.

I appeal to the new government not to repeat the failed policies of the last hundred years. Let’s try something different, something we know works for children.

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