Rather than lock up violent young offenders, the UK’s first secure school aims to rehabilitate them with home comforts and counselling.
Piece by the Sunday Times
Rhys Slaughter vividly recalls the moment he arrived, aged 16, to start a four-and-a-half-year sentence at Cookham Wood young offender institution.
“I remember seeing the others and thinking, ‘These boys are absolutely massive, I had better just keep my head down’,” he said.
Rhys could not sleep that night. “People were banging, shouting, throwing chairs at doors. I discovered prison does not sleep.” He later witnessed a gang fight — “It was 17 boys on three” — in the exercise yard. A young boy was badly hurt. “He was on the floor and two boys were stamping on his head. His face was covered in red.”
Rhys had been sent to Cookham Wood, near Rochester in Kent, for his part in a violent robbery. By the time of the fight, he said, he felt so bored and desensitised that “when the alarm goes off ... you almost enjoy watching it, it is like entertainment”.
Ministers are now trying a new approach to youth detention. The first secure school for the country’s most violent child prisoners is expected to receive royal assent this month.
The new legislation will allow a charity to run a secure institution primarily focused on education and restorative justice. It is hoped it will be the first in a network of such schools.
The move has been seen as a signal that youth offender institutions are failing. In 2016, a report by the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales found they were plagued by staff shortages and rising levels of violence that made nearly half of children feel unsafe.
It also expressed concern that child prisoners were receiving, on average, only 15 hours of education a week. In 2020, young offenders at an institution in Rainsbrook, Northamptonshire, were found to be locked up for as long as 23 hours a day, many spending most of their days in pyjamas. Rainsbrook has since been closed.
The new school is being built on the site of the former Medway secure training centre in Kent, another disgraced youth institution, which was shut down after a BBC Panorama documentary exposed staff there using physical force, including choking restraints, on children.
The new school, called Oasis Restore, will resemble not a prison but “a really therapeutic boarding school” for up to 50 children, boys and girls, aged 12 to 17, according to its director, Andrew Willetts.
The school will have no cells or guards and no bars on windows. Children will be called students rather than inmates, and — despite the risk that they might attack each other — will live in 12 flats with between four and six bedrooms.
Each flat will have its own private garden, and there will also be a reflective garden “with beautiful planting and water features”, said Willetts, who has worked with hundreds of young offenders.
He added: “The rooms will look like a child’s bedroom — they look very different to prison.
“There are no hard metal frames, these kids will have a bed, a mattress, a pillow. They will have lighting they can choose in their bedroom, and a media console with television and radio . . . from which they can do their homework online. Children will be able to look at photos of family. It will be almost like a university student’s bedroom.
“Our aspirations are that we are going to look after these children and make sure they have a path [to jobs] beyond us, so that they do not get caught up in the cycle of reoffending,” Willetts said. “Most will have committed serious youth violence, and that includes the girls. We will also be supporting kids who have been sentenced to life — child lifers — who have committed murder, who will serve with us and then move on to an adult prison.”
Willetts sees such children as primarily needing help. “I do not know many kids [in the criminal justice system] who have not been exploited or let down. We want to build relationships based on trust and create hope in these children’s lives, and a sense of stability.”
Children will get up for breakfast at 7am and dress in a school uniform: a polo shirt with a logo and trousers. They will have a full day of learning, working towards GCSEs as well as vocational qualifications, with arts, crafts, music and sport sessions in the evening. Children will be locked in their rooms only at night — from 10pm to 7am. They will also be able to lock their own doors in the day.
Dogs will be brought in for therapy visits. Some children will be supported and encouraged to apologise to victims or families of victims they have harmed.
Employers are being asked to offer apprenticeships to the youngsters and there are plans to allow students to gain catering experience in a café. Celia Sadie, director of care and wellbeing at Oasis Restore, said she and her team “want to make it as much like a home as possible”. A Cambridge-educated clinical psychologist, Sadie is in charge of rehabilitating the youngsters. “The aim is not to create a bubble where everything is made of cotton wool, but to enable them to re-enter society.”
This new approach echoes that taken by other European countries. According to Anne Longfield, the former children’s commissioner for England, in 2015 there were only 13 children aged 15-17 in prison in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland and Denmark combined. Children convicted of offences in Scandinavian countries are more likely to end up being ordered to attend family counselling than they are to go to prison.
In England, two thirds of children convicted of a crime go on to reoffend. The age of criminal responsibility in Britain — ten — is one of the lowest in the West.
David Wilson, emeritus professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, said: “We lock up more children than many other European countries. Our children are no more criminal than the French, Italians, Germans, Spanish or Danish. We just choose to lock up more of our children than our European neighbours, and for a lot longer.”
Since 2010, the number of children in the UK receiving a caution or a criminal sentence has fallen by 83 per cent, and in the year to March 2021 there were 560 children in custody at any one time, down from 1,963 a decade earlier. Yet violent young offenders make up a growing share. In 2012, 21 per cent of children in custody were there because of violent offences. By 2021, that proportion had risen to 61 per cent.
In the secure school, restorative justice, as well as education, will be key.
“We want to teach the children to work through issues by talking, not violence,” Sadie said. “All our staff will be trained to support that process. It will feel frightening to them to face their victims in the community and people with whom they have longstanding enmities. It will take a lot of energy and love and effort.”