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In Youth Justice Reform, The Government Is Sidestepping A Local Route To Transformation

22/12/2016 14:09
Bignai via Getty Images

Last week saw the long-awaited publication of Charlie Taylor's report on youth justice, which paints an inspiring and radical vision of the way we should treat children in the youth justice system, using education as a tool to build futures away from crime. The government responded with a rush of enthusiastic pre-publicity, including from Justice Secretary Liz Truss, who wrote a piece for The Guardian promising that the government would "use education to offer hope to young offenders".

As someone who has witnessed, time and time again, the ability to prison education to transform lives, linking learning and hope is spot on. The detailed government response that emerged later made several welcome commitments: including more staff, more staff training, increased governor control of education and promises to ensure all young people are in education, training or employment on release. The creation of two secure schools meanwhile will test Taylor's conviction that building security into a school is a better approach than trying to graft education into a prison setting.

At first glance, this may convince us of Truss's assurance that "Taylor has made a compelling case for change and the government has listened". And yet, once you stand back and review the government's response in detail, it becomes clear that the more radical elements of Taylor's vision are missing - not so much being rejected by the government, as simply not being addressed.

A key example is the question of who should bear responsibility for children who come into contact with the criminal justice system. At present, the education, social services and mental health agencies that support children in their communities are all local. But perversely, once a child is sentenced to custody in a Youth Offending Institution (YOI), they are passed on to central government (at huge cost I might add) - taken off the local agencies' plate at least until they return, often more problematic and damaged than ever.

Taylor pushes for this to be devolved, so that local agencies take responsibility for children from their own areas. This would mean better coordinated care, moulding around each child support that is receptive to his or her interlinking health, educational, familial and other needs. It would also create a financial incentive to avoid, where possible, sending a child to custody - not only an expensive option but also proved to be an ineffectual one in terms of leading a child away from crime. Reducing the numbers of children in custody in this way would free up more resources per child to give the intensive support that more troubled children need, either through new secure schools or, perhaps even better, through the highly effective but costly Secure Children's Homes.

But these parts of Taylor's recommendations are not mentioned in the government's response. Indeed, ministers and officials might well be cautious about a radical devolution: what if local agencies aren't up to it? What if they divert and waste the resources? Do we need the difficultly and distraction of shifting the highly centralised structure of YOIs to local control? But in some ways the government's response actually drives in the opposite direction to Taylor's proposed local route. It rejects Taylor's calls to divert funding for Youth Offending Teams from the centralised Youth Justice Board (YJB) to local authorities. Instead, it proposes a strengthened commissioning role for the YJB and national performance standards for those working within the community and custody. By doing so, it misses the benefits of tackling young offending at its source - in the communities young people live in, and to which they will most likely return after custody.

In a sector which has been pushing for meaningful youth justice reform, Taylor's report will be rightly valued for its focus on the overall wellbeing of the child, its clarion call for custody to be used only as a last resort and its compelling message about the power of education to equip all children to reach their potential. As he says: "Children have great strengths on which to build and are capable of rapid and extraordinary change."

But by sidestepping the most radical element of Taylor's vision - local devolution - the government is rejecting a community-based approach that responds to each child's interconnected needs, and which incentivises cheaper, kinder and more effective alternatives to custody. In doing so, the government may have ensured that in years to come, Taylor's report will be looked back on not as a great leap forward, but as a missed opportunity for rapid and extraordinary change.

Prisoners Education Trust 2016 report Great Expectations examines the provision of education for young people in custody and makes 10 recommendations for its improvement.

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