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Work begins on country’s first secure school for young offenders

Written by on 30 July 2022

Work has begun on the country’s first secure school for young offenders – described as a “revolution” in youth justice.

The new school called Oasis Restore is being built in the shell of Medway Secure Training Unit in Kent, a custodial centre that shut down two years ago.

Rev Steve Chalke, the founder of the Oasis Trust, which will run the school, says “it needs to be the blueprint for every youth custodial estate”.

“Oasis Restore is a revolution in youth justice, because it’s based on our understanding of how young people’s brains develop,” he said.

“So the question we’re asking of them isn’t, what’s wrong with you? It’s what’s happened to you and we’re dealing with the pain and the struggle that they’ve had through life.

“You can’t take those who’ve been psychologically wounded through trauma, through violence, through neglect, through abuse and somehow hope that by punishing them and locking them up for long enough, they’ll emerge, renewed people. It doesn’t work.”

Medway Secure Training Unit was the centre of scandal amid allegations of abuse and mistreatment.

The concept of secure schools was put forward as part of a review of youth justice services in 2016.

The plan was to provide enhanced education and rehabilitation for children in a what was described as “a therapeutic environment” – a very different approach to the secure unit on the site before.

An inspection before the closure revealed a significant increase in the use of force including pain-inflicting techniques. And once again the centre was rated inadequate.

Dominic Raab is shown around the school being built on the site of the former Medway Secure Training Unit Image: Dominic Raab is shown around the school being built on the site of the former Medway Secure Training Unit

Read more: MPs call for ministers to open UK’s first ‘secure school’ in 2022

Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab visited the site this week to see for himself what is planned.

He said: “The key thing is that it’s a school within prison walls rather than just a tacked-on education unit or team within a prison environment.

“That’s important because a lot of these young people, they’ll have done some very bad crimes, they’re being punished, but they also need an opportunity to rediscover and relearn some of the things that they never got a chance to do in the first place because of truancy, because they were in care, because they were expelled.”

He added that providing educational or vocational skills would be “critical to bringing down reoffending rates and keeping our communities and our streets safer”.

The secure school is expected to open some time between the end of 2023 and the start of 2024 – at least three years behind schedule.

It’ll house 49 young people – mostly aged between 16 and 19 but some may be in their mid-teens.

And at an estimated cost of around £36m, it’s more than seven times over budget.

But Cara Beckett, the director or learning and enrichment at the centre, has high hopes for its success.

“It’s going to be their home. We’re not here to punish them again,” she said.

“The punishment is the fact that they are being removed from their friends, their communities, their family.

“What we’re here to provide them with is love, care, family environment and access to really, really strong education.”

She added that the staff will work as soon as children arrive to “provide them with the tools to succeed when they go back to their communities”.

They will live in areas almost like flats with their own en-suite rooms, breakout areas and shared kitchen and laundry.

But there are those who say young people shouldn’t be locked up at all.

Helen Woods, who is chair of the Criminal Justice Group at the British Association of Social Workers, doesn’t believe it to be a good use of funds.

“Because there’s only one in the country, which wasn’t the original model for secure schools, it means that the young people placed there are more likely to be placed far from home and a number of them will be on quite short sentences of three to six months,” she said.

“So that begs the question of how effective any educational therapeutic input can be for these young people and I suppose, more widely, our concern at BASW is that young people would be better dealt with in their communities, better dealt with on community programmes rather than secured in custody.”