This piece was written by Ross Little of the Howard League for Penal Reform. Ross will be a member of the panel for the British Council event, on the evening of 11 December exploring issues of teaching in youth custody.

What do young people think about the education they currently receive in custody? This was the question the U R Boss project started with earlier this year when speaking with Youth Justice Board representatives about their efforts to improve the access to college education for young people leaving custody. The U R Boss project at the Howard League for Penal Reform works to involve young people in influencing positive change in the youth justice system.

There is broad consensus that, together with accommodation, education is one of the two biggest resettlement issues for young people in the secure estate. Resettlement issues are those most commonly faced by young people who contact the Howard League's free legal advice line or our participatory work with people who have been affected by the youth justice system. As a result, we have produced a free downloadable guide to resettlement law for practitioners.
Even the justice secretary has this month called for “a stronger educational heart” to custody. The good news for him is that it should be relatively easy to demonstrate an improvement on the number of GCSE passes achieved in custody this year. The bad news for our incarcerated youth is that the number of GCSE passes for young people in custody has fallen by nearly a half in the space of a year; there were just 119 GCSE passes in 2010-11 compared to 232 in 2009-10. Yet there was no row in the press about whether this reflected a drop in standards or harsher marking and ministerial interference. The most plausible reason for this remarkable drop in educational attainment is something far more serious: the reduction in the number of weekly education contact hours required in custody from 25 hours to 15 hours in 2009.
The single most striking fact from the work of the U R Boss project earlier this year is that almost nine out of ten of young people we spoke with in custody in one Young Offenders Institution (YOI, from a total sample of 75 young people in a custodial population of approximately 150) said that they had been excluded from mainstream education prior to entering custody. Six in ten had been excluded on multiple occasions. In discussion groups they told us about their experiences prior to custody:
It was fun at the time, but I didn’t realise til it was too late…You end up chilling with your pals on the street and you have bare time on your hands and you end up getting in trouble.
I got kicked out in Year 9. I lost focus. I was intelligent. I never got into trouble with the police until I went to a PRU.
The high rate of exclusion is not an isolated phenomenon associated with our work or the YOI we were working in. Cripps and Somerfield (2012) found a similar level of exclusion in a much larger sample in their research for Her Majesty's Inspectorate of prisons (HMIP).
It is unrealistic to expect much from education provided in an environment ultimately designed to punish and contain, rather than educate and liberate. A system designed with punishment and prevention of escape at its heart cannot be one that successfully educates the majority of people that stay within its perimeter. Fewer than one in ten young people in custody are gaining a GCSE during their stay.
It is therefore understandable that some people are opposed, as a matter of principle, to relatively minor improvements to a fundamentally flawed system. On the other hand, it is important that the existing system works as well as possible for those that find themselves within it. So, what can be done to improve the current system? If we are serious about answering this question, the voices that must be included, listened to and understood are those of the young people actually serving sentences in prison. In the YOI we worked in, young people raised the following issues:
  • Whilst all those entering the YOI said they were offered a choice of education, in reality they explained that this choice was limited by a number of factors. For example: the level of risk they had been ascribed, the availability of teachers, the start dates of courses, the time available due to the length of their sentence, the limited types of courses, the fewer contact time and a more limited curriculum. 
I didn’t get the choice I wanted, which was radio, media and gym. Instead I got Maths, English and ICT.

I wanted to do construction, but had to do maths instead. Then I went on radio.

When I first came in I wanted to do geography, history and German but they don’t do them here.

Sometimes you don’t get all you want, you make back-up choices.

There’s lots of choice, but they need more.

There should be more education – more options available…a barbering course…Plumbing. Woodwork.

  • Some young people found the prison environment was not conducive to effective learning: 
I can’t focus. You need to put people that do want to work in a place they can concentrate.
Here I’ve found I can’t really learn…I just can’t concentrate.
  • For those in the segregation unit, educational contact was limited to two 45 minute sessions (of maths or English tuition) per day, Monday to Friday. These young people often had issues of immediate concern rather than focusing on their sums and spelling, such as fear, mental ill health, physical intimidation and violence. Some had a pre-occupation with issues awaiting them outside of custody: 
I ain’t got nowhere to go when I come out. Accommodation is a big problem for me. I don’t know where I’m gonna live.
  • In addition, the curriculum had become narrower, removing options such as drama and Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) from the educational offer of the institution.
My plans? Performing arts…But drama isn’t on the curriculum now. It used to be, but it’s not now.
  • Those capable of higher achievement than GCSE level could were often not treated as such.
It’s good quality [the education], but only up to GCSEs.

If you’ve done GCSEs, or if you don’t want to do them, there isn’t much else. If people are working at their age-level and they’ve done GCSEs then they’re at a disadvantage.

  • Where higher level qualifications were made available, sufficient support was not available to go with it:
They offered me A-levels; I refused to do it. I work better face-to-face. They only offered me study on my own, without a teacher.
The most positive comments were reserved for a project that enabled them to work with birds of prey:
It’s one of the best things I’ve done since I’ve been here…I’m learning something new, I never knew it existed before.
The reality is that many leave custody with a poor record of educational attainment. Those that wanted to believed they could access a college education following custody and reported having received support from others:
If I get my application in early the college have already said they’ll take me back.
My YOT worker helped me. My college course is horticulture. I like practical stuff – I’ve got a short attention span.
However, the aspiration to attend college was not one shared by the vast majority of those we spoke to. But, placing the sole burden of responsibility on YOIs for developing this is overly simplistic as they are not the education providers and can find it bureaucratic to get changes to the curriculum.
Looking to the longer term and as mentioned at the beginning of this article, there is clearly an issue regarding the exclusion of young people, particularly black males, from the mainstream education system. Devolved decision-making to individual schools on admissions policies, and greater freedom regarding exclusions, incentivises schools to do everything they can to cherry pick the best behaved young people. This only serves to widens the already considerable attainment gap between the most and least advantaged young people.
As noted above, many of the issues experienced by the young people are entrenched and present prior to custody. As reported recently, £245m a year is spent on detaining about 1,800 young people, in some cases up to £200,000 a year for an individual, which is five times the cost of sending a young person to Eton. The key issues are clear. We must continue to listen to the circumstances faced by our most vulnerable young people, really understand them and take action which helps them get their lives back on track.

Ross Little

Howard League for Penal Reform