“Putting education at the heart of the youth justice system”

By Nina Champion

Head of Policy, Prisoners Education Trust

www.prisonerseducation.org.uk / nina@prisonerseducation.org.uk / @PrisonersEd

In a recent speech, the new Justice Secretary set out his vision for building “a much stronger educational heart” to the youth secure estate.  He explained that “These are often deeply troubled children, who have grown up in the most difficult and challenging of circumstances. All too often they can't even read or write, and many have been out of school for years.  We need to detain them, but we also need to educate them.  And it makes no sense to have them under our control and not to make a real effort to send them on with better skills a better chance of getting a job, and ultimately having a better life”. 

Learner Voice

Grayling added that “I will want to listen to organisations that know how to teach problem teenagers and not just to those who know how to detain them. People in the education world, not just the security world”.  This is to be welcomed, however I would also encourage him to listen to the voices and suggestions of young people and involve them in a meaningful way.  In our recent report ‘Brain Cells’, based on the views of over 500 prisoners, Prisoners Education Trust recommend that all YOI’s and prisons should all have a learner involvement strategy.  They should also offer participation skills training to enable prisoners to develop an understanding of citizenship and give them the communication skills necessary to be a student representative. 

There are several good examples of learner forums in the youth estate that enable young people to work together with staff to help shape the educational offer and experience to better meet their needs.  At one YOI they also get an ASDAN accredited qualification.  As two youth council members at HMYOI Cookham Wood said:     

“I’m more confident in speaking, I used to stutter when speaking to adults, now I can be confident talking to them and it will be good for interviews”

“It is good to know we have made some little changes, but they have had a massive impact”.

Prisoners Education Trust have visited a number of student forums over the last year and three themes emerge which I hope the Justice Secretary will consider:

More embedded and engaging learning

As the Justice Secretary mentions, many young people in prison may have had negative experiences of education in the past.  Embedded and engaging learning is vital to act as a ‘hook’ into education and also promote the development of crucial ‘soft skills’ such as teamwork, communication, empathy and self confidence.  There are lots of examples of good practice in providing engaging learning in YOI’s including sports based-learning, film and multi media projects, motor mechanics, prison radio, animal-based initiatives, arts projects and Duke of Edinburgh award schemes.  However there are often long waiting lists for these activities and more could be done to expand provision of this type of learning.   

More opportunity for progression

Although there is a need for basic literacy, numeracy and IT provision in the youth estate, our focus groups revealed there is also a need for more higher level qualifications, particularly for longer sentenced prisoners or those who already have basic skills, to be able to progress.

‘I’ve done 11 qualifications here at low levels, in that time I could have done at least three at higher levels”

“They should offer proper GCSE’s, not level 2 qualifications’.

“More level three courses so I can go to college or uni”.

More support for young people to go to college or university after release

Although many young people want to get into employment, many are also keen to up-skill and engage in education or training after release.  There needs to be better through the gate support for them to do this.  Given the current rise in youth unemployment, it is more important than ever to help young people after release into education and training so they can up-skill and compete with peers who don’t have a criminal record.  Young people told us that education and training after release would also be a good way for them to occupy their time positively to avoid re-offending. 

Breaking the Cycle

I welcome the Justice Secretary’s focus on education in the youth estate, however the same should also apply to the adult estate.  Our latest report, Brain Cells, highlights the multitude of benefits learning can offer all prisoners, not only improved employability, but improved ability to help others, confidence, self esteem, family relationships, health and well being, ability to cope with prison and self discipline.  The report highlights that many of the issues raised above also relate to the adult estate, such as lack of progression routes and a need for more engaging learning. Rather than prisoners carrying out unskilled work such as making teabags, education should be at the heart of both the youth and adult prison estate, and offer a range of academic, vocational and informal learning. 

By educating adult prisoners, this enables them to help their own children with their homework, as well as have aspirations for them to finish school, attend college and even university, thereby in the long term helping prevent the next generation of potential young people entering custody.

Nina Champion

Head of Policy, Prisoners Education Trust



<p>Some very interesting arguments raised here.&nbsp; I can encourage peopel to visit the P E T website and download the Brain Cells report.</p><p>&nbsp;</p>