An initial report of a government-ordered review into youth justice conducted by Charlie Taylor calls for a greater focus on education for young offenders.
The report states that, as a result of a rapid decline in numbers of young people held in custody – from around 3,000 in 2008/09 to the current level of around 1,000, secure establishments have been gradually decommissioned, resulting in a smaller youth custody estate "by accident rather than design".
This had resulted in a number of issues including children being accommodated further from home, and problems with gang affiliations and violence.
Taylor's report proposes the creation of a network of smaller custodial establishments as secure schools, in a similar way to alternative provision free schools.
"Rather than seeking to import education into youth prisons, we should create schools for young offenders in which we overlay the necessary security arrangements," the report states.
Head teachers in the schools would be given autonomy and flexibility to commission services such as mental health support and speech therapy as well as recruiting and training their own staff.
The schools would also work closely with parents and have greater ties with schools in the community. Over time the schools would replace the majority of youth custodial provision, although the report states that there is likely to still be a need for specialist provision for the youngest and most vulnerable children.
Speaking yesterday, Prime Minister David Cameron endorsed the proposals.
"In short: this will mean turning existing young offender institutions into what will effectively be high-quality schools that will demand the highest standards," he said.
The Youth Justice Board (YJB) said Taylor's recommendations chime with calls it has made in the past.
“This report includes many of the reforms the YJB advocates, including the creation of small, locally delivered custodial establishments, which focus on education," YJB chair, Lord McNally said.
"We want to see the required investment, a dedicated workforce and the right leadership and oversight to realise these ambitions.
“We must also take care not to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ – the reduction in the number of children in custody has been achieved as a result of 15 years of investment in community-based intervention and this must be sustained.”
Penelope Gibbs, chair of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, said: "We welcome Charlie Taylor's recognition that child prisons are currently not fit for purpose, and that the staff in them do not have the right training.
"He is right that many children learn only how to survive in prison. We need smaller, more local establishments focused on welfare and mental health as well as teaching. But we also need to imprison fewer children."