The first part of Charlie Taylor's review of youth justice for Michael Gove, focussing on custody, was published in February, to a generally favourable response. It came against the background of the horrific abuse at Medway STC exposed by 'Panorama' in January, and universal relief that Gove dropped his predecessors' plan for very large Secure Colleges (though not not before £6m had been wasted on that project). Is this review an exception to the trend I complained about in my first post, of government launching new initiatives without bothering to inquire into existing or previous arrangements? Let's see.
Evaluating the existing system
The existing youth custody arrangements certainly cry out for proper evaluation. In 1998 the Blair Government began a new, hugely ambitious - and very costly (in its heyday, over half billion a year) - approach to youth justice. For the first time, there was a single body, the Youth Justice Board, to drive and coordinate both preventive programmes in the community and custodial services, on the basis of 'what works' evidence and the best available professional advice. The previous Tory government's programme for Secure Training Centres (STCs), built and run through PFI, was taken up and expanded. Thus, the YJB commissioned rather that ran custodial services, of three very different types:
The 3 types of accommodation tended to be used for different types and ages of offenders, but to a limited extent, the YJB could move children between them. Over time, as the numbers in custody rose and then fell, the YJB made strategic choices about where to expand and then where to contract the estate (except that the STC contracts were in practice unbreakable, though the original PFI contracts are now ended, with one exception.)
There was, therefore, a great opportunity to assess which types of custody worked in what ways for which types of offender; whether it was worth paying 3 times as much for a place in a smaller, more intensively staffed LASCH than for one in a YOI; or whether the troubled history of STCs was to due to the original concept, or the way the private sector ran them. But the YJB never did so. It was sharply criticised for that by Public Accounts Committee in 2011:
"After ten years ...the Youth Justice Board knew little about the relative effectiveness of interventions with young offenders...[It] had not been able to isolate which programmes had had the most impact on youth offending, and why.....making it difficult to assess whether, for example, a Secure Training Centre, which cost £160,000 a year, was value for money in comparison to a Young offenders' Institution, which cost £60,00 a year" [figures are per place /year, JL].
Nor has Taylor bothered to find out. Indeed, he barely distinguishes between the different types of custodial facilities, before dispatching them all to the dustbin of history. He says nothing about LASCHs, even though their small size, 'welfare' ethos and high staffing ratio makes them much nearer what he has in mind than either STCs or YOIs. Nor – an extraordinary omission! – does he even mention re-conviction rates as measure of success. Grayling had previously pointed out that the rates are not that different for the different types of custody – so in that respect, you don't get more, by paying a lot more:
Youth custody, cost/place v. re-offending rates
From MoJ consultation paper, 'Transforming youth custody', 2013 (NB the populations were not matched).
But what Grayling omitted, and Taylor doesn't even get close to noticing, is that re-offending rates for youth custody have been falling steadily, despite the much more difficult mix of offenders that Taylor notes: a drop of 8 percentage points, more than was achieved for community sentences.
Trend in proven re-offending for youth custody
Erm...doesn't that look a bit like...well...success?
So much for what Taylor omits to say the system he is charged with reviewing. What does he say?
He points out that as the estate has reduced, so children are being held further from home; and that this smaller population are made up of the more persistent and troublesome offenders. He gives one single figure on performance: that YOIs, instead of he 30 hours a week education contracted for, have recently managed only 17 hours, due to staff shortages. But he doesn't mention that STCs do much better – 25 hours a week. Why not, I wonder? Nor does he draw the obvious conclusion – that spending cuts have badly damaged youth custody services, and need to be restored if the system is to do any good. He complains that leaders of existing units cannot commission services they need or recruit their own staff: but that simply isn't so of STCs, run by private companies.
But his main point is a sweeping one: that custodial staff – in LASCHS , STCS, and YOIs alike – simply aren't adequately trained, experienced or skilled for the job. This isn't backed by any facts or analysis – except that he found they aren't teaching literacy using phonics. (In the world of educational faddery, this is indeed a most hideous crime.)
Someone really should tell Ofsted, which inspects STCs and YOIs. I have read some of their reports and yet to see one conclude that the education providers in the youth custody estate are getting it all wrong. It also seems strange that the YJB, charged with commissioning these services and which sets elaborate standards for them, hasn't spotted just how ill-trained all these staff are, in all these different types of institution, over all these years. Here, for example, is Ofsted in a very recent report on the Keppel Unit at Wetherby, the star of the YOI system:
“The quality of teaching, learning and assessment was good....Additional individual learning support for boys with low-level literacy and numeracy skills was of high quality, providing the right balance of support and challenge. Boys clearly enjoyed their learning and felt more confident about taking external examinations as a result.”
Nor was Taylor's view shared the outgoing Chief inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick. Here he is on the Keppel Unit:
“a place that always ensured very good outcomes for young people....[a] model of how a specialist unit should be run.....Keppel cares for some of the most difficult boys currently held in custody. It does so calmly and humanely, and evidences a culture of respect. The unit has a strong positive ethos and boys are dealt with as individuals. Poor behaviour is challenged and positive behaviour modelled and promoted. An attentive and patient staff group deserve great credit for the work they do. “
Here is his predecessor Ann Owers – extraordinarily, actually lamenting the closure of a prison – Thorn Cross YOI:
“Thorn Cross juvenile unit was a beacon of good practice in working with a small number of young people and preparing them for the transition to life outside prison.”
That the current system has serious problems is clear enough. But Taylor's critique is both shallow and dismissive.
Having thus summarily dispatched (in half a page) everything that came before, what does Taylor propose instead?
Much of what he proposes has been received wisdom among youth justice professionals for a very long time: small units, near to home, intensively staffed, with a welfare ethos, strong on education, and with access to high quality specialist services. That's the professional consensus that opposed STCs when the Conservative Government first opposed them in the early '90s, and it is why the YJB wanted to reduce its dependence on YOIs.
But there is a reason we don't have such a system: it would be unfeasibly expensive. It was unaffordable, even in the days when a government department's worries were whether its budget would grow by 10% next year or only 5%. That's why the YJB found itself unable to reduce its dependence on YOIs. And since 2010, of course, the world has changed: Grayling cut the prison budget by any eye watering 25% (which explains the under-performance of Y0I regimes). This isn't the time to be dreaming of big new spending projects.
Taylor acknowledges there would be 'financial..challenges' in implementing bis ideas and seems to be hoping to top slice money from the education budget. He gives no figures, so here are some ball park ones of my own, for accommodating the current numbers (1000) in say 30 'Taylor' units:
Capital and one off costs
Site purchase, construction and fitting out @ £120k/place £120m
less sale of STC and 2 YOI sites - £40m
plus redundancy for 500 prison staff @ £20k each + 10m
net cost £90m
Difference between cost/place of YOI v LASCH, as benchmark for high staffing high quality multi disciplinary provision = £145k X 700
£102m a year
Difference similarly STC v LASCH= £35k X 180 £6m a year
total £108m a year
Is it worth it? We know that lack of employment is highly predictive of re-offending; and that many young offenders have such poor literacy and numeracy skills that many jobs. But the links, increasing literacy-increasing employability-increasing employment-reducing re-offending, are hard to make in any measurable way. But let's say giving offenders basic skills who lack them on entering custody cuts re-offending by 20%, a generous estimate compared to other interventions where the size of the effect is known, and suppose only half that effects already in place via basic skills programmes which are already in place. Then the effect of 'Taylor' units would reduce the re-offending rate for juveniles in custody from 67.1 % to just over 60%. But because numbers are so low, this would 'avoid' only about 350 crimes year - an astronomical £216k per crime avoided. Doesn't look terribly good value, does it? These figures should make us to think about what else can be done with £108 a year. Or, more realistically, under austerity economics, what it would cost to cut that £108m from somewhere else – say, the education budget: 3, 000 fewer primary school teachers. I wouldn't like to have to justify that.
It seems clear, then, that all that will be affordable will be a few pilot 'Taylor' units, in areas far from existing facilities. That means that existing provision, especially in YOIs, will remain for a very long time. That, surely, means that we need just as urgently to remedy the defects he has spotted in YOIs, including underfunding. In fact, in terms of bangs for bucks, it looks like money might be better spent restoring those education cuts in YOIs, than in a few extremely costly new units. We would need also, of course, to properly evaluate the effectiveness of the first 'Taylor' units, before embarking on further costly expansion, since it is always possible they will not deliver the breakthrough he promises.
Is AP the right model?
Taylor envisages a very specific model, taken from 'alternative provision' schools in the community, which take pupils who cannot attend mainstream schools because they have been excluded, or other issues. He points out that AP schools deal with children many of the same problems as those in custody. That may be a good starting point. But there are some questions that need asking about it.
Are AP schools a successful model?
This is worth asking because in 2011, Ofsted published a very critical report on AP schools. A further report published this year found there had been progress, for which Taylor himself takes much of the credit, but still many worrying issues. Not all AP schools are required to be registered or inspected: some that should be registered, aren't. Much depends on the child's mainstream school evaluating the quality of AP and the child's progress in AP, but many don't. In some, teaching is still poor, curricula too narrow and expectations of the children too low. Some haven't got proper child protection procedures in place. This means some of the most vulnerable children are being placed in schools that aren't regulated or inspected and about which little is known. According to 'Schools week', of 14 AP schools inspect so far this year, 9 were rated as inadequate or requiring improvement, none as outstanding. Given all this, are we so sure that AP is the right model? What is the evidence for that?
Right balance of 'school' and 'prison'?
The history of custodial treatment of juvenile offenders in this country has for the best part of a century repeatedly see -sawed between the polarities of 'welfare' and 'punishment', a saga mordantly summarised by Hagell and Hazel (2011) (see end note). Taylor wants to 'reconceive youth prisons as schools', a move that will be widely welcomed in the sector, with the horrific scenes at Medway still in the mind's eye. He seems completely uninterested in the criminal justice system which sent children there, or why they were sent. He wants only to think schools.
But they are not schools - and can't be. There is a world of difference between running a school where difficult and troubled children attend during the day but cannot be prevented from leaving, and do leave at the end of the day, and locking a group of difficult children up in an institution for many months, maybe years at a time, an institution which they cannot leave and which they must do all their living inside. This raises risks, issues, challenges which simply don't occur or not in the same unrelenting way as in custody. It also partly explains why the procedures, rules and controls that so irritate Taylor are in place. One wonders whether a better starting point would be to accept that any youth custody facility must be both a place of detention where you are sent as a punishment - why else are they there? - and a place of care, education and resettlement. That, indeed, is what makes them such difficult places to get right.
With his impatience of rules an procedures and control, Taylor is clearly singing from the same hymn sheet as Gove with his 'reform prisons ' - prisons 'set free' from central control. That idea raises many issues which I shall explore separately. I simply observe here that those issues present in an esepcially acute way when you are dealing with the most vulnerable children - which is where we came in with the recent Panorma programme.
Will post-release support be adequate?
Taylor's focus is rightly on preparing children to live safe, rewarding lives on release. It is worth pointing out therefore that his proposals can achieve little if services to support children after release have been damaged by cuts. Or if the economy has been ravaged by the supreme folly of Brexit (but then, I'm only going on what the Treasury, CBI, IMF, Bank of England, and the governments of America, Japan and Germany say).
Taylor has not bothered to make any serious analysis of the existing system, and consequently the opportunity learn lessons from the most complex, ambitious and expensive experiment ever undertaken in youth custody has been missed.
Taylor seems to come to this review with his panacea ready prepared. His proposal is in many way what youth workers have always wanted: but it is unaffordable and even if could be funded, appears a very poor way of using so much money, that will have to probably come from existing education programmes. So only a small scale experiment can be afforded, in which case it is just as important to remedy the deficiencies in the existing institutions which he notes, perhaps more so. Such pilots must be properly evaluated before expanding coverage. There are questions over the AP model: its very mixed track record in education, the balancing of 'school' and 'prison', accountability and control. The new custodial system will achieve little if post release services are damaged by cuts - or if unemployment soars after Brexit. Perhaps Taylor might have a word with Gove about that?
Ref: Hagell, A. and Hazel, N. 'Macro and micro patterns in the development of secure custodial institutions for serious and persistent young offenders in England and Wales' Youth Justice 1(1), 2011.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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