Youth Custody and Secure Colleges -

March 4, 2013

Ian Dickson is a retired social worker who spent nearly 40 years working in variety of social work roles around children and young people. These included inspector, children’s home manager and field social worker in the inner city. He is also a care leaver, having spent 16 years in care as a child in a number of children’s homes and foster placements. In this article about Youth Custody and Secure Colleges, he shares his views and thoughts about the recent consultation paper by the government on the subject matter of youth custody (Please note that the views in this article are those of the author, and may be very different from those of UK Fostering).

The government consultation paper “Transforming Youth Custody: Putting education at the heart of detention” (February 2013) proposes the idea of “secure colleges” intended to prioritise education and training in custodial establishments for young people. To do so, it apparently intends to use an imminent review of the existing secure estate for children and young people to introduce radical changes to the regimes of the secure establishments that currently comprise the juvenile secure estate.

The current juvenile secure estate is comprised of Young Offender Institutions (YOI), Secure Training Centres (STC) and Secure Children’s homes (SCH). They are very different types of institutions.

Most young people in custody are held in YOIs. YOIs are for the older and more challenging young people (usually between 15 and 17 years of age) and are essentially juvenile prisons. They are the largest of the institutions housing up to 440 young people, usually in units of between 30-60 beds. YOIs are expected to provide 15 hours education a week (plus 10 hours “purposeful activity”) to each young person. However, young people report that they can spend over 15 hours a day ‘banged up’ in their cells. YOIs have the lowest staff /child ratio across the juvenile secure estate.

Information provided in the consultation paper states that the average cost of a place in a YOI per annum is £65,000. Reoffending rates are reported to be around 73%.

The second type of secure establishment is the secure training centre (STC).  The STCs are purpose-built secure establishments for children and young people aged between 12-17 years, although it would be very unusual indeed for a 12 year old be placed in a STC.

There are four STCs, one in the north east, two in the midlands and one in Kent.  They offer between 58-87 beds divided into small units holding 5-8 young people. Each of the STCs has its own separate school and teaching staff and offers young people 25 hours education a week. For school age children, this is provided as a school day every week day. Vocational activity for young people above school age is limited. Again, information provided in the consultation paper states that the average cost of a place in a STC per annum is £178,000, and there is a reoffending rate of about 70%.

Staffing is higher in STCs than in YOIs, and the centres are managed according to agreed standards with the Youth Justice Board. They do not form part of the prison service.

The third type of secure establishment for children and young people is the secure children’s home (SCH) The SCHs are the smallest of the secure establishments that comprise the juvenile secure estate and are managed by local authorities. They are children’s homes and the care standards applied are the same as for any other children’s home, allowing for the demands of security. They are the most highly staffed, and the staff are trained and qualified as residential care workers. Children and young people are far more likely to receive therapeutic support in a SCH than in either of the other two establishments.

The SCHs vary greatly in size and can offer between 8-40 beds on site. The bigger ones are divided into smaller units. They provide for children and young people aged between 10-17 year olds, including most of the younger and most vulnerable children. They also accommodate children looked after by local authorities who have been placed on secure welfare orders by the courts. Each of the SCHs has its own school managed by the local authority and provides at least 30 hours education per week. Information provided states that the average cost of a place in a SCH per annum is £212,000, and there is a 76% reoffending rate.

The government consultation paper notes that an average reoffending rate for young people released from custody across the secure estate would be over 70% per annum.

As I understand it, under the government’s new proposals, the YOIs, STCs and SCHs would be replaced by one single type of secure establishment – the new “secure college”. These new secure colleges would seek to introduce a “coherent relationship” across the secure estate to reinforce emphasis on education and training for young people linked to business and educational establishments in the local communities, which the paper asserts is missing at present. This would improve education and training for young people.

“Overall, there is insufficient join-up between education services and systems both within custody and between custody and community, with the result that time is wasted and opportunities to make progress are lost”

 “Young people should be leaving custody with a placement in education, training or employment secured, but a survey indicates that two thirds of them leave with no such placement, and of those that do only half are still engaged after one month”

It is envisaged that the secure colleges will provide a regime focused on education and vocational training, and be linked to colleges and work places in the community. They will give the young people “skills and qualifications, self-respect and self-discipline to turn their backs on crime for good” having gained education and skills at the secure college, young people will return back to their community “more focused on and engaged with the opportunities that an improved education has made available to them”.

It is difficult to argue with any changes to the estate that improve education, training and life chances for the young people placed there. However, a central feature of the government proposal is cost.

“…we are also spending large sums of money to achieve such poor outcomes. Places in the secure estate in some cases cost more than £200,000 a year – five times the cost of sending a child to a top private boarding school.”

“In 2012/13 the Ministry of Justice and YJB have budgeted that £245m will be spent on commissioning the youth secure estate. This equates to an average cost of almost £100,000 a place per annum – far higher than the average cost of a place across the whole National Offender Management Service (NOMS) estate at £38,000 per annum– and in some circumstances we are paying more than £200,000 per annum. At a time of significant financial challenge, and faced with such poor outcomes, things have to change.”

Therein lies the rub. It is very clear from the above that the government do not intend to continue to pay the current cost of keeping a young person in a SCH. These are the custodial establishments which are most costly and average over £200,000 per annum per young person.

SCHs are very highly staffed, offer good quality full time education and in most cases, vocational training to the children and young people placed. They offer individual support to young people and are managed as children’s homes, not prisons. They are recognised to be at worst the least damaging and potentially the most therapeutic of the secure establishments that comprise the juvenile secure estate. All the SCH staff are trained in child care, and employed by the local authority in which they are based.

The government paper states that the reoffending rate for SCHs is around 76%. This is worth a closer look.

SCHs have long been recognised as providing the highest standards of care and rehabilitation for children and young people who have to be detained in custody. Education provided to young people within the SCHs is good. For example, nationally all pupils are expected to make three levels of progress from Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 4, (i.e. five years). This equates to approximately 0.6 NC level per year and 0.2 NC level per school term. Educational data provided for the SCHs suggested rates of progress three times greater than the national expectations of good progress within the first six months.

Even so, the Youth Justice Board (YJB) has routinely reduced the number of beds in SCHs it commissions, resulting in significant SCH closures. In 2003 the YJB contracted with 22 secure children’s homes to provide 297 places in England and Wales. Within the next 10 years, these were reduced to just 183 places in 10 secure children’s homes, with the expectation of further reductions. None of the remaining SCHs are situated inside the M25, leaving no locally based SCH provision for young people in London.

As a result, young people who require a place in a SCH are much less likely to be placed locally, and more likely to have to travel a long way from their home base. This adds considerably to the difficulties involved in care planning and resettlement. It introduces significant logistical difficulties for families, carers, social workers and other professionals who need to visit the SCH, get involved in the planning and decision making and support the SCH in preparing the child or young person for discharge home or moving on to another placement.

Distance also actively militates against successful planned and phased educational and vocational work from the SCH within the young person’s home community whilst the young person is still placed at the SCH. For young people lucky enough to be placed in a SCH near to their home base, there is an improved chance of planned pre-discharge placement in college or work placements prior to release under supervision which can continue following discharge. With the closure of SCHs and the reduction in beds commissioned by the YJB, this is now increasingly unlikely. This must surely have had a significant impact on reoffending rates.

There are four STCs managed by the private sector. These too are considered to be very expensive placements in comparison to YOIs and certainly when compared with the stated average cost of £38,000 per annum for a place within the NOMS estate. Currently, STCs offer five hours education a day every weekday for school age children and an increasing (but still insufficient) range of vocational activities on site. They are better staffed than the YOIs and young people are more likely to have a wider range of purposeful activity available to them. Young people assessed to be too vulnerable to cope in a YOI might be sent to a STC.

Given there are only four STCs, most young people placed do not come from the area adjacent to the centres, and they have the same logistical difficulties experienced by SCHs due to stretched lines of communication and the difficulties caused by distance. Engaging meaningfully with families in consultation, planning, decision making and family work is commensurately much more difficult. Again, placing young people locally in educational or training placements prior to discharge such that they might continue in the placement once discharged is extremely difficult. It is usually not possible for staff from the STC to support a young person once discharged beyond the first few days following discharge.

I suspect that STCs would be unable to sustain the level of provision they currently offer if their funding was reduced to the level implied in the government proposal to bring it closer to that of YOIs, or even the average cost of a place in the NOMS estate. This would result in their closure (and thereby less provision,) or their reducing staffing and facilities. I struggle to see how having less individual staff support and supervision can keep children and young people safe and ensure that they receive sufficient support and stimulation to prepare them for the community. Closure would leave even less local provision for young people, and I remain unconvinced that reductions in provision will do anything to stop reoffending once young people return to the community.

Across the juvenile secure state, the value of young people having mentors to support them throughout their stay in custody and continue that support once they are discharged is being increasingly recognised. It is not enough for the mentor to become involved at the end of the sentence. To be effective, they need to support the young person through each stage of their placement, and then critically through discharge and resettlement. This is far more likely to result in a successful resettlement and reduced offending. When young people are placed so far from their home base or community, it creates difficulties for the mentor to engage as fully and comprehensively with the young person to support them through their stay in custody and as they move back into the community. Again, this must have a negative impact on re-offending rates.

All of the custodial institutions are affected by increasingly limited provision within the community and local authority cutbacks.  It is not uncommon for local authorities to refuse to identify or commit to a placement for a young person to go to once discharged until the last few days before discharge. This is invariably for financial reasons. Clearly, this has a serious impact on discharge and resettlement planning, and young people may have no idea where they are going to live once they leave custody. It is very difficult for those working with young people to organise education and training placements for young people who have no idea where they will be living until the point of discharge. It would also be difficult for a young person to focus on such plans if they had no idea where they would be expected to live.

Young people report that they often do not feel safe in their placements once discharged. They have often described being placed in hostels or B&B’s alongside people who may be violent, abusive and threatening. Such placements are highly unlikely to be stable or supportive, and the likelihood of young people leaving the placement and drifting into reoffending must be high.

These disadvantages caused by distance of placement and poor and inadequate resettlement arrangements are not caused by the secure establishment. Indeed, it can be argued that they are a direct result of government policy and financial cutbacks. It is highly probable that these disadvantages seriously increase the risk of young people reoffending. I see nothing in the government’s proposal for secure colleges to address these issues.

Indeed, the financial restrictions likely to be placed upon the juvenile secure estate would be very likely to force the remaining local authority-run SCHs to close as they would no longer be financially viable, and reductions in staffing required to cut costs would make them unsafe places for children and young people with challenging behaviour.

If, as I fear, the SCHs would be forced to close by savage cuts in funding, there would even less local provision and choice of placement, particularly for vulnerable children and young people, which would I suggest will increase the risk of reoffending, not reduce it.

The only provision within the existing juvenile secure estate that could potentially benefit from secure colleges could be the YOIs. Their provision is already so far behind the STCs and SCHs that improvement would be very welcome indeed. I was talking to a senior manager from a YOI recently, and he welcomed the introduction of secure colleges as a means to improve on services for young people and possibly assist resettlement.

In principle, he felt that local partnerships and improved educational input could improve education and training for children and young people, and this would be bound to enhance their life chances once discharged. Having partners coming into the establishment to offer vocational training could only be a good thing.

However, he worried that the increasing difficulties involved in gaining suitable discharge placements and appropriate housing for young people sufficiently early in their placements to allow work to be done to prepare young people for “the out” properly would outweigh any benefits. Young people who did not know where they are going to live or who do not feel safe in their placements are going to be less likely to avoid reoffending.

Indeed, young people who do not feel safe or supported are more likely to gravitate back to previous friends and behaviours and revert to offending.  In my personal view, this is one of the main reasons why re-offending rates from each of the three types of secure establishment are currently greater than 70%. If I am correct, there is nothing in the government proposal to address this serious concern, and therefore nothing to suggest a possible fall in reoffending.

The YOI manager I spoke with told me that he was also being expected to reduce staffing within his establishment. He was worried that reduced staffing levels would seriously expose staff and young people to risk and the regime would be more likely to focus on security than rehabilitation. He worried that he would be unable to offer a “safe and decent” environment for the young people placed – hardly a conducive environment for education, training, work on offending behaviour and settlement.

Finally, if my understanding is correct, the secure colleges will be minimally staffed and focus on education, work and training. Capacity for individual work with young people will be considerably more limited than they are at present. Haven’t we been here before with the Borstals of the 1960’s? They failed then – why should they succeed now?

Ian Dickson

March 2013