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The Secretary of State for Justice says he is confident a new secure school for young offenders is the right solution for the UK’s “failing” youth custody provision.
Dominic Raab visited the construction site at the former secure training centre in Rochester, Kent, which is being converted into the first secure school in the UK.
It is described as a school within a prison, whereas existing youth custody facilities have less focus on education.
It is hoped that by introducing a strict routine and curriculum, including core subjects such as English and maths as well as vocational subjects, ‘mindfulness’ sessions and team sports, children will be able to break the cycle of crime and will not reoffend.
The visit comes weeks after the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published a report into youth custody provision which concluded the Ministry of Justice’s efforts were “failing children”.
The cross-party committee of MPs also criticised the lack of a clear and convincing strategy for making improvements to youth custody provision, the cost of the Medway secure school spiralling from £4.9 million to £40 million, and the opening of the school being pushed back from 2020 to as late as February 2024.
Speaking to the PA news agency about the report, Mr Raab said: “Although we’ve seen over 10 years the number of people in the youth custody estate coming down from 2,000 to 500, I don’t think the outcomes are nearly good enough and you’ve got to look very forensically at why.
“The problems will have been at home, there may have been mental health problems, and frankly a wholesale lack of education for some of these young people, and we’re catching them late, I can’t pretend otherwise. Education, councils and social services have not been able to pick them up in their safety nets.
“We’ve got to do something quite radical and concerted and bold, and that is to make sure they have an environment which is going to be very disciplined and quite exacting.
“For young people who haven’t properly sat down, gone through a curriculum and spent the day learning this is going to be a big change for them, but if we can support them as well as require them to sit through a school day and learn skills they’ve never learned before, we get the chance to break that cycle.
“I accept the diagnosis from the PAC, and this is an answer based on empirical experience at home and abroad – the US, Spain, Scandinavian jurisdictions – to try and do something different for these core, hard-to-reach, stubborn group of young people who have often been through a pretty hellish time and done some pretty bad things, but we’ve got to turn that around.”
The secure school, called Oasis Restore, will be run by the Oasis Charitable Trust which already has 52 academies across five regions of the UK.
This is like nothing Oasis has done before, but founder Steve Chalke says ideally all child custody facilities should be run like this in future.
He said: “Oasis Restore truly is a revolution in youth justice because it’s driven by our growing understanding of brain science – how young peoples’ brains are formed.
“The vast majority of young people in custodial care in the justice system are kids who have struggled with life, they’ve been let down, they’ve been abused, they’ve been through traumatic experiences.
“You can’t help somebody by harming them, you can’t take those who have been psychologically wounded through trauma and somehow hope that by punishing them and locking them up for long enough they’ll emerge renewed people, it doesn’t work.
“The first secure school can’t be the only secure school. Oasis Restore needs to be the blueprint for every youth custodial estate. This way of working with young people has to become the only way. This is the first secure school and it won’t be the last.”