Staff shortages and problems linked to gangs have been blamed for a 12 per cent fall in the amount of time young people in young offender institutions (YOIs) spend in the classroom.
Figures published in parliament show that across the four state-run institutions - Cookham Wood YOI in Kent, Feltham YOI in west London, Werrington YOI in Staffordshire, and Wetherby YOI in Yorkshire - young people spent an average of 13.96 hours in the classroom in 2017, nearly two hours less than in 2015 when the figure was 15.85 hours.
The drop in classroom time comes despite a government focus in recent years on placing education at the centre of youth custody. In August 2015, the Ministry of Justice introduced a target for young people in custody to receive 30 hours of education provision each week, under a contract with Novus and Prospects worth a combined £12m a year.
The problem of young people in custody accessing sufficient education was highlighted in a recent legal case, when campaign group The Howard League for Penal Reform challenged the treatment of a boy in custody.
"The boy was isolated in his cell for weeks on end without any access to education, even though prison rules require children get at least 15 hours a week of education," says Frances Crook, Howard League chief executive. "The judge said that insufficient education had been provided because ‘not enough thought, effort and resources have been put into it'.
"The failure to provide sufficient education leads to even bigger problems. Often, by virtue of the fact that they are not being taken to classrooms, children are left locked up in their cells in conditions of solitary confinement, which is doubly unacceptable."
Inspection reports published in 2017 show the quality of provision in YOIs was judged on the whole to be good, but that issues over the way units were run created problems accessing it.
Despite improvements to the education curriculum at Feltham YOI, boys were not receiving their entitlement to mandatory hours of education, with less than half attending lessons and many sessions cancelled. The inspection report states staff shortages, high levels of authorised absence and late attendance caused by prison movements as factors for this.
Nina Champion, head of policy at the Prisoners' Education Trust, says the key issue is about sufficient staff being available to accompany young people to and from lessons, particularly at Feltham and Cookham Wood.
"Getting boys from cells to the classroom is a big factor," she says. "Boys are keen to improve their prospects as they know education is their route out, and there are good teachers wanting to teach.
"There is a particular issue around staffing in London and the South East, which is causing frustration all round.
"Issues with gangs mean young people in some YOI can't be in the same corridor or room at the same time as other young people."
At Cookham Wood, it was hoped staff from neighbouring Rochester Prison, earmarked for closure, would be able to fill in, but the closure has been delayed until 2019, resulting in delays in recruitment and poor outcomes for boys. However, Champion says more comprehensive solutions need to be found (see box).
Sally Garratt, director of operations at Novus, says the number of prison officers has "increased significantly" since last year "bringing stability to YOIs". She says the average number of hours spent in education is also increasing and that more young people are attaining maths and English qualifications.
"The recent inspections show a significantly positive shift in outcomes for young people and access to education," she adds.
Education expert: ‘Focus on quality of teaching and meeting young people's needs, not hours in the classroom'
Nina Champion, head of policy at the Prisoners' Education Trust, says there needs to be more consideration given to how boosting education can address the causes of gang-related conflict in YOIs.
"In one young adult unit, the governor has commissioned an organisation to look at the root causes of some of this conflict and funded it through the education budget," she says. "Conflict resolution is seen as education there."
This is possible, explains Champion, because of the broader definition of education used in adult prisons, where it is considered to be "activities that give individuals the skills they need to unlock their potential, gain employment and become assets to their communities" as well as "build social capital and improve wellbeing of prisoners during their sentences".
"By comparison, the YOI contracts to deliver 30 hours per week are quite restrictive," she says. "Rather than the focus being on the number of hours in the classroom, it should be about quality of provision and meeting young people's needs."
Champion says that the broader definition used for adults enables multiple providers being commissioned to deliver education courses "so that you end up with a mosaic of support". Greater governor autonomy and use of "blended learning" combining classroom time with online courses is also beneficial.
Among YOIs, Champion cites Werrington's approach as commendable. It has started to embed learning into young people's support needs and introduced distance learning courses, which are linked to developing skills for use upon release.
EDUCATION IN YOIs
- 13.96 hours a week classroom time for young people in YOIs in 2017
- 15.85 hours a week classroom time in 2015
- 30 hours per week classroom time target set by the MoJ in 2014/15
Source: Ministry of Justice