Recent policy changes to keep more young offenders out of custody will affect those working at FE colleges, says Sally Alexander

The prisons and courts bill published today promises to “enshrine into law that a key purpose of prison is to reform and rehabilitate offenders, as well as punish them for the crimes they have committed”. 

Having worked in offender learning for 25 years, and currently at an FE college that supports some of the most challenged young learners in Milton Keynes, it has been interesting to observe a similar trend in recent times across the system at large, including youth justice. For example, the numbers of young people in custody have shrunk from 3,000 in 2008 to 900 in 2015, reflecting a change in policy to remove police targets for bringing minor offences to justice.

This drive to keep young offenders out of custody is likely to affect all those working in further education, so it is important for colleges to understand the context.

One of the recent reports that may prove influential is Charlie Taylor’s ‘Review of the Youth Justice System’, which was published in December 2016.

We can have an impact on changing their lives around

In line with recent policy changes, the review recommends that children need to be offered support in the community for all but the most serious crimes, as contact with the formal youth justice system is likely to reinforce offending behaviour.

Mr Taylor’s review expresses a real determination to use the skills that colleges and schools can bring to the table to help keep young offenders out of the custodial system. He suggests that power be devolved to local authorities, bringing together all relevant parties – parents, health, social care, housing and of course, education – to create a comprehensive plan to meet the child’s individual need.

As an FE college, we experience the value of cross-partner working to achieve solutions for our most challenging young learners. This has not always been smooth, and we have not always been involved in the process. Interestingly, however, since the publication of this review, our local authority is starting to involve our college formally as a part of these young learners’ plans.

At the same time, these learners are presenting far more challenging behaviours, suggesting there is a push to keep these young people out of custody wherever possible. This poses issues for a college, but we manage and assess the risks with the partners involved in the plan. If we genuinely work together, we can have an impact on keeping these children out of custody and changing their lives around.

If we keep them out of custody they are far less likely to reoffend

However, there will still be around 900 children who must enter custody and who, as a consequence, will be the most challenging to rehabilitate.

The report’s recommendation that we create secure schools for those placed in custody is one I fully support. As Mr Taylor says, “education needs to be central to our response to youth offending”.  

Under this plan, these children would be placed in establishments where education is the main driver. Instead of trying to squeeze education into a strict and often unforgiving prison regime, we would create secure schools of 60-70 children, where all of the staff, be they education, health or support workers, would be trained to manage and deal with challenging behaviours. All children would have individualised learning programmes with a focus on quality educational provision including maths, English, and programmes leading to real employment or further learning opportunities pre- and on release.  

And here is the interesting parallel with the new prisons and courts bill, which highlights a need to address prisoners’ maths and English skills and to help secure them employment on release. Whether for children or adults, the effective approach to supporting prisoner rehabilitation is placing education and learning at the heart of what we do.

However, to return to the young offenders, it is essential to remember they are children, often as young as 12 or 13. If we keep them out of custody they are far less likely to reoffend, and more likely to have a positive result through joined-up locally-led interventions, in particular involving local colleges and schools. This will both keep the public safe and give these children a chance in life.

Sally Alexander is executive director of offender learning at Milton Keynes college