Secure schools: government looks to providers to deliver reforms

Derren Hayes
Tuesday, November 27, 2018

MoJ documents reveal details of how secure school will operate and what prospective providers must do to fulfil ministers' ambitions. But one expert fears that a lack of funding and too many children may harm its impact.

The language used in the guide for applicants to run England's first secure school leaves no doubt that the setting will be first and foremost an education setting.

References to teachers, students and learning objectives are scattered throughout the 51-page document, published by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) last month.

The language in the guide and supporting bidding documents is one illustration of the MoJ's desire for secure schools to "deliver a fundamentally different service to that provided in the current youth custodial estate".

Plans to pilot two secure schools were first announced in December 2016, on the back of recommendations made in Charlie Taylor's review of the youth justice system. Their aim is to place a greater focus on the education and rehabilitation of young offenders, improving safety in the youth secure estate and reducing reoffending.

In October, the government announced Medway secure training centre (STC) in Kent would be the site for the first secure school, with more purpose-built secure schools planned in coming years. Medway will accommodate up to 64 boys and girls aged between 12 and 17.

The application process is open until February, with a decision on a successful bidder set to be made by the summer. What do the documents say about how the first secure school will operate?

Government vision

In his introduction to the guide, Justice Secretary David Gauke says Medway has been chosen because it satisfies the government's criteria for value for money, meeting local needs and is deliverable quickly.

"In deciding on a site for the first secure school, we have taken a strategic view of how we can meet demand and ensure that a school in this model best serves the local community," he writes.

The documents emphasise that the school's main function will be to prepare young people for life, and that this should be the "golden thread" throughout applications.

This should include supporting each child's own aspirations, interests and needs, and how they achieve these, with a view to becoming independent and employable.

School culture

The government wants the setting to be "fully inclusive" so that young people are involved in setting their care plans. Promoting equality "among students, staff and visitors" is also desired.

The documents acknowledge that key to this will be the treatment of and outcomes for Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) children.

"Secure schools must embody fairness, transparency and accountability and see the child first and the offender second. They must enable all students, including those from BAME backgrounds, to have trust in the youth justice system," states the guide.

Secure schools will have academy school status so will not need to follow the national curriculum. Instead, the curriculum will be "broad and balanced" and tailored to students' needs. English, maths, computing, sport and vocational training will all be included.

Site and facilities

The government has set aside £5m to improve facilities at the site. The government says the refurbishment of Medway will be completed by the time the school opens in autumn 2020, although work is yet to get underway.

The bidding guidance reveals that it will make use of the current site's three distinct zones: education, training and health; residential; and administration and reception.

The education zone has a sports hall, outside sports pitch and two education blocks. Planned work includes an extension to the sports facilities and creating room for vocational training, education and social activities.

The food technology classroom is to be updated "to a standard that is fit to deliver qualifications in catering", the guidance states.

The residential area will continue to use the STC's three residential blocks, which have a total of 67 bedrooms and are split into separate units with kitchen, communal areas and staff offices.

Refurbishment includes updating fire alarm and CCTV systems, and ensuring all bedding is fire retardant. Metal doors and storage units will be replaced with wooden alternatives.

Other work to be carried out includes extending the visitor and dining area, which will also be the venue for school assemblies.

Behaviour management

Bids will need to show how they will address the underlying causes of each student's behaviour and help them manage their emotions and communicate their feelings and needs.

Encouraging positive behaviour and incentivising and rewarding progress are also important for establishing the right culture.

The document states that enrichment and social activities that promote good health and wellbeing and are accessible will be provided, while temporary release is "essential" to develop strong links with community provision. Currently, temporary release must be approved by the Justice Secretary, but the government says secure school providers will be given "as much autonomy as possible".

However, the documents also confirm that secure school staff will be able to physically restrain students "to prevent harm to him/herself, other people, serious damage to property or to prevent absconding".

Acceptable methods of restraint, and training requirements, will be discussed with the provider prior to opening, although techniques that deliberately inflict pain will not be permitted, the documents add.

Staffing standards

Secure schools need to appoint a head teacher with "the knowledge, understanding and autonomy to make informed decisions" on meeting the needs of challenging children.

If a registered provider of a children's home is appointed to run the school, a "responsible individual" - as set out in the Care Standards Act 2000 regulations - must also be appointed to lead and be accountable for its performance.

As secure academies, secure schools will be able to set their own pay and conditions for their staff. Teachers of academic subjects in secure schools must hold qualified teacher status.

Care staff must have the Level 3 Diploma for Residential Childcare (England) or a qualification that the head teacher considers to be equivalent.

The secure school will need to have a special educational needs co-ordinator, and should encourage and enable staff to gain a professional qualification in youth justice - for example, the Youth Justice Effective Practice Certificate or the Foundation Degree in Youth Justice.

Funding and accountability

The MoJ expects the number of students to be increased gradually. However, over that period it says funding will be provided on the basis of the school being at maximum capacity of 64 children.

"Our current assumption is that £8.6m of the annual operating funding will be available," it states, although this is to be confirmed once the legal status of the school is confirmed.

Payments will be reviewed and made quarterly in advance and future payments may be adjusted to avoid the secure school operating with a large surplus.

Meanwhile, health services will be separately commissioned and paid for by NHS England.

Secure schools need to maintain an overall Ofsted inspection rating of at least "good". If judgments fall below this, the MoJ may intervene to support improvement in addition to any enforcement activity from inspectorates.

Intervention could take the form of support to build capacity through to termination of the funding agreement.

In addition to an annual inspection and regular performance monitoring, the ministry will receive independent visitor reports and "may take intervention activity to support improvement" if safeguarding or wellbeing concerns are raised.


Vision risks being undermined by size issues

By John Drew, former chief executive, Youth Justice Board

Justice Secretary David Gauke writes that he is looking to the future and wants "to take the older types of provision out of commission". Although his sense of time is somewhat off, he means young offender institutions (YOIs) and secure training centres (STCs). So far so good.

But - and it's a big but - the announcement that England and Wales' first secure school will use the buildings of Medway STC is a set back.

The site, on a cliff overlooking the River Medway, is remote from the mainly London homes of the children who will be sent there. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) had promised us secure schools "close to the communities they serve". This is not that.

The building itself is an old style custody facility, with all the detritus that goes with that. No major changes are planned to the centre. For example, the MoJ had promised us secure schools where "visible security features will be kept to a minimum". This is not that.

Respondents to the earlier consultation told the government that the proposed size of the new secure schools - 60 to 70 places - was too large. A smaller pilot would surely have been the best way to test the model. Instead, the government has pressed on with its plans for 64 places, at least double the size the first secure school should be.

All of this is a real pity as there is much else to like in the most recent statement. A number of us pointed out the need to focus more on children from black and minority ethnic communities, and there is now double the number of references to their needs. Also added is a welcome inclusion of reference to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

There is also better news on the amount of cash available to run the secure school. The announcement explains that £8.6m is available to cover provision for 64 children. This is £134,000 per child per year, but this excludes the NHS investment, which will hopefully be significant. That addition, plus a favourable position in respect of VAT, should mean that the resources available would get near to those for secure children's homes. Best of all, the MoJ is saying that they will declare the cost prior to bidding, so that the "lowest price wins" will not be an element of the competition. This will be very welcome.

The statement also retains admirable content from the first draft, including the need to develop child-focused provision, a specialised workforce and individualised provision.

The secure school experiment will be judged on good actions than good words. Some of these first actions seem to be going in the wrong direction.

I accept that ministers will not reverse their decision about Medway STC, but two simple steps would restore my confidence in the project. First, increase the cash envelope and second, acknowledge that to start, the school will operate at half its 64-place capacity while it tests the new model.

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