Tonight at our event in London, we plan to launch our new virtual network for policy makers and practitioners working in and around the teaching of English in youth justice. But is there a need for such a network? We don’t want to be like the overly helpful boy-scout, waiting to help someone across the road who does not really want to go. So we have had to establish a need. We are aware that there are numerous networks, sites and associations. Some like the Howard League for Penal Reform, NACRO and Prison Reform Trust are focused on issues of justice and rehabilitation. Others like Teachers Net, or the British Council’s own CPD Portal are focused on providing support for those teaching, often in challenging environments. There are other organisations and coalitions like the British Youth Council, UK Youth, National Youth Agency, The Prince’s Trust and NVCYS, which are networking those working in informal education and development with young people. There are even networks such as the Standing Committee on Youth Justice [SCYJ] for whom youth justice is a focus. We wanted however to respond to a perceived need.... for a group sitting at the centre of these policy areas. If we could draw a three way Venn diagram, our target group would sit at the central intersection of three circles, youth, justice and English teaching.

The event planned for tonight was originally going to be, if not the end of something at least a culmination of something. We would bring together experienced and interested parties to share ideas and meet face to face. It has transformed into something more sustainable. It is now the beginning of something.  Those attending our event will have the opportunity to be present at the launch of a new virtual network.

Linked to the British Council’s English Agenda website, the new platform will be a space where policy makers and practitioners can continue to build on the connections made, discussions sparked and ideas shared at our event. It should be a space where questions can be surfaced, steam let off, resources accessed and collaborations forged. The platform will be a network and a place, a contained but not constrained space, for those in the room and for those who could not attend either because of geography, diary commitments, or maybe because they do not know about it yet.

We began with a narrow focus -the chunk of ice at the centre of our snowball- Teaching English in Youth Custody. That is by design a clear focus. But, there are those who can benefit from and contribute to the network, who may not share that distinct expertise and experience. They may however, have an interest in adult education, or teaching English for Speakers Of Other Languages, or vocational education for adult prisoners, or even informal youth engagement and transformation. All of these voices can be of real value in our network. English is a corner stone of all learning. We get that right and we have a better chance of getting the rest right. This means that teaching English will remain central to our network agenda.

We do not intend to be the only network in town. We are keen to link with other resources and networks, informal or otherwise that exist to support specialists-teachers of English in Youth Justice and other challenging environments, prison educators and policy makers and practitioners. We have already begun that process. Where can we hear for example, from the ultimate beneficiaries of education in these environments, -young people in custody. As the Prisoner Education Trust recent ‘Brain Cells’ report suggests, there is a real appetite for direct dialogue and consultation, not just with teachers, but with those being taught.

A young teacher quoted in Marie Delaney’s blog on support needs for specialist teachers calls for support!!

 ‘I really wanted to teach in this secure unit, I thought I could really help the young people , but sometimes I just feel drained, helpless and useless. I wonder why I bother. Some mornings, I set out really positively but find my feelings of hopelessness washing over me as I drive into the car park, even before I go through any security doors’-Jane – a part-time teacher in a secure unit for young people

During my ten years with The Prince’s Trust, working daily with young people facing challenges in their daily lives, often with chaotic lifestyles, under resourced, at risk and vulnerable,- off the peg solutions were never the option. One young man had a profound effect on me when I visited Thorn Cross YOI and presented what I thought was a lucid explanation of the Trust’s programmes. After my speech he responded with the powerful retort.. “So what? Says who? Who cares?”

It made me think… So what?…What difference will we make… Says who?... What is the evidence of need and how reliable is it?.. Who cares?  Who will be the beneficiaries?.. In this case we hope that we can answer. We will aim to host a virtual network, which is user-sustained and generated, that will add value to all members.

We know from our research and from speaking to practitioners and policy makers in the field that there is a need. And we know that those who are working to teach, not only English, in challenging youth custody environments and those with whom they work will benefit from a legacy of increasingly motivated, resourced, connected and experienced teachers who will deliver better more effective and innovative services.

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