The opening of the first secure school, intended to improve the life chances of children in custody, has been delayed by approximately three years, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).
Most children in custody in England and Wales are placed in a young offender institution (YOI). Those who are too vulnerable are placed in either a secure children’s home, or a secure training centre (STC).1 The 2016 government-commissioned Review of the Youth Justice System in England and Wales recommended that the Ministry of Justice should address longstanding concerns about the welfare of children in custody by opening secure schools. The Ministry accepted this recommendation and committed to delivering two secure schools.
The Ministry and Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service (HMPPS) expect the number of children in custody to more than double by September 2024, after a long-term decline. The forecast is based on the collective impact of recruiting 23,000 additional police officers, reversing COVID-19 court backlogs, and tougher sentencing following the passing of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Reform Bill.
Certain groups of children are increasingly over-represented in custody.In the year ending March 2021, on average 53% of children in custody were from ethnic minority groups, compared to 32% in the year ending March 2011. The proportion of black children in custody increased from 18% to 29% during the same period. The small number of girls in custody are more likely to have experienced sexual and physical victimisation, and relationship difficulties.
Government initially contracted out STC provision and considers that management failed to meet good standards. Inspectors have persistently raised concerns over the welfare, safety, and outcomes for children in England’s three STCs, rating them as ‘requiring improvement to be good’ or ‘inadequate’ in every year since 2017. HMPPS terminated its contract with the private sector contractor, MTC, for the management of Rainsbrook STC in December 2021. It is also considering how the terms of its contract with G4S Care and Justice Services UK Limited, the private sector contractor managing Oakhill STC, can be used to achieve improvement. Medway STC was under the management of HMPPS when it was closed in 2020.
STC failures have resulted in children being moved to areas of the youth custodial estate that had previously been judged as less suitable for their needs. When Medway STC closed, around one-third of the 35 children were moved to a YOI, around a quarter were moved to another STC, and a small minority transferred to the adult estate. When Rainsbrook STC closed, around a third of the 33 children were transferred to a YOI, and a very small minority were transferred to a secure children’s home, or Oakhill STC.
The first secure school was originally due to open at the Medway STC site in autumn 2020 but has been delayed until November 2023. Progress has been slower than hoped because of assumptions made about timescales at the start of the project, changes HMPPS needed to make to meet Ofsted’s advice on the standards for secure children’s homes (SCH) registration, and the time it took to establish the basis on which a charity could run a secure school. The cost estimate for converting the Medway STC site to a secure school rose from £4.9 million to £36.5 million, due mainly to significant design revisions after due diligence. Due to wider financial constraints, HMPPS has not started work on the second secure school.
The Ministry and HMPPS expect secure schools to accommodate any children regardless of level of needed, but the provider will ultimately decide which children it accepts. In July 2019, the Ministry appointed the Oasis Charitable Trust (Oasis) to establish a Secure Academy Trust to run the first secure school which is expected to provide 49 places. Under these arrangements, managers of the Secure Academy Trust, like SCH managers, will be able to reject the placement of children if it considers that it cannot meet their needs while also meeting the needs of other children. HMPPS is considering how its funding agreement with Oasis can be used to ensure that there is a placement available for every child.
The Ministry and HMPPS recognise that significant work is required to improve the youth custodial estate if it is to meet the increased demand for places and children’s needs. As at January 2022, the Ministry’s proposals included: opening the first secure school and securing funding for the second; improving existing YOI and STC provision; and possibly re-opening Rainsbrook STC.
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Notes for editors
- The Ministry is accountable to Parliament for the oversight of the youth justice system in England and Wales and is responsible for commissioning youth custody services, including setting standards and provisions for managing poor performance. The Youth Custody Service (YCS) has been, since 2019, also responsible for commissioning youth custody services alongside its management of the youth estate. The YCS is part of Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service (HMPPS), an executive agency of the Ministry. Day-to-day responsibility for the secure school programme and for the management of STCs sits within HMPPS.
- Medway STC was closed in March 2020, Rainsbrook STC was closed in December 2021 and as at April 2022, Oakhill STC is under an improvement plan following a critical inspection.
- In England and Wales, children from the age of 10 can be held criminally responsible for their actions.
- Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.
About the NAO
The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government and the civil service. It helps Parliament hold government to account and it uses its insights to help people who manage and govern public bodies improve public services.
The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Gareth Davies, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The NAO audits the financial accounts of departments and other public bodies. It also examines and reports on the value for money of how public money has been spent.
In 2020, the NAO’s work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £926 million.