The prison system is creaking. With jails overflowing, the government plans to release offenders early and suspend short-term sentences to ease the strain.
The long-awaited “school with security”, run by the Oasis Charitable Trust and due to open this spring, hopes to provide ministers with a template to cut reoffending and empty prisons. Jack Dyson reports…
Teenaged killers, sex offenders and drug-dealers are set to be welcomed at England’s first secure school – almost four years behind schedule.
The Oasis Charitable Trust, the sponsor of large academy chain Oasis Community Learning, is preparing to finally launch Oasis Restore in Medway, Kent, in the spring.
Delays have ballooned the cost of the Ministry of Justice-funded project by 645 per cent, from an expected £4.9 million to £36.5 million.
As its opening date nears, bosses believe the school – registered as both a 16 to 19 academy and secure children’s home – will eventually help to ease the strain on the creaking prison system.
Government figures show there are now almost 88,000 people serving prison sentences – with just 1,200 spaces left over across the entire estate.
Just last month, ministers announced that in a move to ease the crisis, prisoners will be allowed out on licence up to 18 days before their automatic release date and that sentences of less than 12 months will be suspended.
A chance to change
Dr Celia Sadie, Oasis Restore’s director of care and wellbeing, says the secure school’s intention is “to help children on a pathway out of custody” by “addressing the problem way upstream”.
“We know around 70 per cent of children reoffend within about a year of leaving youth custody. We know that within 10 years about 97 per cent are in adult custody.
“We have this opportunity to divert them into a whole other way of life, which in the long term should ease the pressure on prisons. That’s our hope.”
Secure schools were first recommended in the 2016 Taylor review, which called for education to be central to dealing with children in custody.
The government defines the facilities as “schools with security”, rather than “prisons with education”. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) initially pledged to open two, but Oasis Restore is the only one in development.
In the long term, the government’s vision is for secure schools and similar smaller units to replace secure training centres and young offender institutions.
Sadie says Oasis Restore will not be “wholly in charge” of admissions. Children will be sent to the site shortly after sentencing – sometimes within two hours of court hearings.
An offender will only be turned away if there is not enough capacity. “We want to be as inclusive as possible. This is a proof-of-concept project, so there hasn’t been a secure school before, We want to show it can work for everyone,” Sadie said.
“They have to be pretty severe [offences] for a child to have been sentenced or remanded in custody – usually violent crimes from bodily harm to murder. They can be sexual offences, they can be offences to do with supplying drugs. There’s a whole range.”
Double Ofsted inspections
Its dual status will mean the school will be the subject of two lots of Ofsted inspections – one as a school and another as a secure children’s home. Care Quality Commission assessors will also visit.
Cara Beckett, Oasis Restore’s director of learning and enrichment, confirms the secure school will not follow the curriculum used in Oasis Community Learning’s 54 academies.
Instead, it will shape bespoke plans for each of the 49 children, aged between 12 and 19, during initial three-month inductions.
It will focus on English, maths, PE and computing, while giving young offenders the opportunity to move down 10 vocational pathways.
“We are delivering everything from entry-level functional skills [to] GCSE [and] A-level for our core subjects. For our vocational pathways, we are looking to transition into T-levels at some point.”
Children will live on the site all-year round, with school terms lasting up to seven weeks.
Time will also be allowed for afternoons with family members in “really comfortable rooms…where they can come and make dinner together”. Beckett says the get-togethers will be supervised “only if it needs to be” for safeguarding reasons.
Steve Chalke, the founder of Oasis, stresses the facility will “first and foremost be a home” to offenders. “We’ve done away with wings and cells…there are no bars, big steel doors. It’s all very secure, but therapeutic.”
The secure school will employ 250 staff, 15 of them teachers. Recruitment has begun, with nine teachers already employed.
The rest of the workforce will be made up of residential practitioners, teaching assistants, social workers, a senior leadership team, facilities staff and an NHS-commissioned healthcare team, including therapists and primary care professionals.
‘It can be really distressing’
Sadie also revealed that teachers will have regular one-to-one sessions with a “trained therapeutic member of staff”.
“We’re aware that working in settings like this … is going to mean staff will find the role really rewarding, but also really challenging.
“The information about what the children have done…can be really distressing. The learning [that we’ve taken] from the settings where this is done really well is that staff enormously benefit from clinical supervision.”
The school, on the site of a former secure training centre in Medway was supposed to open in autumn 2020 and cost £4.9 million. A National Audit Office (NAO) investigation last year found its estimated cost rose to £36.5 million.
This is still less than the £59 million estimated cost of building a secure school from scratch, but the spending watchdog warns the final full costs “will not be known until the advanced site designs are complete”.
The facility is expected to have an annual budget of £10.5 million, based on a cost of between £186,000 and £212,000 per place per year.
The NAO says officials partly attribute “the delay to the assumptions made about the timescale at the start of the project”.
Changes to meet Ofsted’s certification for a secure children’s home, and work to develop the basis on which the school can have charitable status also have had an impact.
How will the school work? The legal Ts and Cs
- Oasis Restore will be a 16 to 19 academy, but does not have to follow usual academy rules. For example, the government will draw up a new secure schools financial handbook, assurance handbook and governance handbook. When amendments are made to the documents, Oasis must ensure that it complies with the updated requirements within three months “or by such other date as the secretary of state may reasonably require”.
- Admissions. Oasis, which will run the school through a new secure academy trust, “shall use its best endeavours to accept all children and young people referred to it by the youth custody service”. If it considers a referral to be “inappropriate and/or in contradiction” with its statement of purpose, the charity “shall promptly notify the youth custody service” and they will “collaborate in good faith to determine whether the referral shall be withdrawn”.
- Funding will be “calculated and agreed with the secure academy trust”, which will get an “annual letter of funding or equivalent, sent before the relevant financial year begins”.