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Will secure schools improve outcomes for BAME young people serving custodial sentences in the youth justice system?

The MOJ are consulting on their procurement prospectus for the new model of youth custody that promises to put education at its heart. But will this result in improved outcomes for BAME children and young people?

It’s almost three years since the then Justice Secretary Michael Gove instigated a review into the youth justice system. Charlie Taylor, a respected educationalist, was appointed to chair it and the subsequent Taylor Review was published in December 2016. Mr Taylor is now chair of the Youth Justice Board.

The centrepiece of the Taylor Review was its proposal for a new model of youth custody - Secure Schools. These new institutions would be run by a head teacher and specialist staff teams, with smaller intakes of young people and with the focus on education.

This all sounded incredibly positive, so why should I have my doubts that this new model will deliver improved outcomes for BAME young people, who are heavily over-represented in the youth justice system?

There are a number of issues and precedents which lead me to question the plausibility of this new model delivering for BAME children.

The Taylor Review itself identified the issue of the over-representation of BAME and looked after children in the youth justice system. However, it failed to explore the reasons behind this disproportionality.

In the draft prospectus BAME groups and Looked after Children are both identified as groups disproportionality over-represented in the youth justice system. This is a step in the right direction but the prospectus should go further.

Why aren’t bidders being asked about their experience in working with BAME and looked after children and for evidence that they can improve the outcomes experienced by these groups? Assessing their track records in working with these groups would appear to be an obvious aspect of their credentials to interrogate.  

Many of the potential bidders are likely to come from Academy Trusts. However, there is continuing concern about higher rates of exclusions from Academy schools for SEN and BAME children, some of the very groups who need to see the greatest improvement in outcomes within the youth justice system. We believe the prospectus should be looking to promote a greater breadth of non-profit making bidders.

If specific engagement with children and young people directly affected and experiencing custody cannot be part of the pre-procurement process then surely engaging with civil society organisations who work with these groups should be. For a number of years the YJB has failed to proactively engage with civil society around the deteriorating outcomes for BAME children and young people compared with those for white young people children.  This stark disproportionality was at the heart of David Lammy’s observation that youth justice was his biggest concern.

Informing policy through engagement and dialogue is at the heart of the work BTEG has been involved with through the Young Review; supporting both the Lammy Review and partnerships across civil society in highlighting and engaging with government around ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system.

There is now a major concern in society around increased violent crime involving young people. At the same time violence and outcomes within the youth estate have deteriorated over the past years. This led to HM Prison’s Inspector stating last year that all of our youth prisons were unfit for purpose. With the over-representation of BAME groups in the system as both perpetrators and victims and the rise in violent incidents within custody and in the community now, is it time to give real thought to the experience of BAME children and young people in the youth justice system? Could there be a link between a system that clearly treats them more harshly, punitively and delivers poorer rehabilitative outcomes and the increase in violence?

We need greater engagement from the YJB and all public bodies working with vulnerable and marginalised children and young people with civil society. This must be about putting the voice of the user, and engagement with communities, at the heart of policy development not just as a tokenistic gesture.

Secure Schools are an opportunity but a traditional procurement development approach is, in our opinion, unlikely to reap the results for BAME young people and children that are so desperately needed.   

Photo credit: cphoffman42 on Visualhunt / CC BY-SA

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