Government must improve education for young people in custody

13 Sep 2016

Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) has urged the government to move forward with reform of the youth justice system, after the charity found that young people continue to face significant obstacles to learning while in custody.

In a report published today (13 September 2016), PET makes 10 recommendations for improving education for children and young adults in secure institutions, including the greater use of non-traditional teaching methods, personalised learning plans, and better recruitment practices.

Rod Clark, Chief Executive of PET, says:

“Education is vital for every young person, but for children in custody it’s particularly essential. Giving a child or young person the chance to learn is one of the best ways we have to prevent them from committing future crimes, but at present we are simply not grasping this opportunity.”

Charlie Taylor’s review of the youth justice system was expected to be published earlier this year but has been delayed. His interim report, published in February, found that education must be central to an effective youth justice system. A government response was expected in summer but Justice Secretary Liz Truss said last week that she needed “time to think” about the recommendations.

At present, two thirds of young people will reoffend within a year after leaving custody.

Rod says:

“There is a worrying gulf between the quality of education in mainstream schools and secure institutions. This, combined with rising levels of violence, means secure institutions risk serving as conveyer belts for adult prisons, when they should be places children can learn, rehabilitate and be directed towards crime-free adulthoods.”

PET’s Great Expectations report notes that young people tend to come into custody with very negative experiences of education. Over a third were aged 14 or younger when they last attended school, more than a third have grown up in the care system and 20% have diagnosed learning difficulties.

PET says secure institutions need to adapt to these complex needs by focusing on individual progress and potential. Whenever possible, they should use non-traditional methods to engage reluctant learners, including sports, arts and technology.

Other recommendations include improving recruitment practices, pay and conditions for staff, and giving more support to young people when they are resettling into their communities.

Chris Syrus, a former prisoner who now runs his own social enterprise with young people, says:

“I would encourage the new Justice Secretary and ministers to heed the recommendations of this report. As someone who was funded through PET to study a degree in Psychology while in custody, I owe my level of success and fulfilment in life to the power of education. If individuals can be supported to find their passion and then gain the education to pursue it, we will have a system that enables real change.”

Key recommendations:

  • Attention to be paid to make sure each young person’s and young adult’s learning journey is personalised and aspirational
  • The MoJ should develop policies to ensure that the best people are recruited to work with young people, including better pay and conditions 
  • Learning outside traditional classroom settings should become the norm 
  • Resettlement needs to start from early on in a sentence to ensure there are smooth transitions to the community 
  • The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) should make it a clear policy goal to make further significant reductions to the number of children under 18 and young adults held in custody
  • The MoJ should take a joined-up approach to the treatment of young adults in custody and should appoint a lead person for this work 
  • The MoJ should conduct an urgent review of the current 30-hour educational contracts in the young people’s estate. These are not being met and could be harmfully inflexible

On 16 September in award ceremony in Cardiff, PET and its alliance will celebrate the achievements of teachers who go the extra mile to promote learning in prison. Winners include two teachers from the Feltham Young Offenders’ Institute in London, who were nominated by boys in their care.

For further information on this, or anything else, please contact Katy Oglethorpe – 020 3752 5676/0791 2161 536.

Notes to Editors

  • Educational specialist Charlie Taylor was commissioned by the government to conduct a review of education for young people in custody in September 2015. Interim findings were published in February 2016. 
  • Speaking in February, then Prime Minister David Cameron endorsed proposals in Taylor's interim report to turn existing young offender institutions into "secure schools". However, reports by Children & Young People Now suggest the MoJ may be preparing to shelve the plans. 
  • Great Expectations is available here 

About us

  • Since 1989, Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) has supported prisoners to engage in rehabilitation through learning. The charity does this by 
  • providing advice and funding for over 2,000 people per year for distance learning courses in subjects and levels not generally available in prisons. PET also carries out research, informed by prisoner learners, to improve prison education policies. 
  • A report by the MoJ shows that prisoners helped by PET reoffend 6 to 8 percentage points less than a matched control group. Analysis by Pro Bono Economics shows that it would only take a one percentage point reduction in reoffending to be the result of that support for the benefits to outweigh the costs of the investment.