What's wrong with Secure Schools?

By TJ Coati, Coalition of Antiracist Educators and No More Exclusions

Image credit: India Joseph


The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will provide the legal mechanism for charities – including Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) – to operate prisons for the first time in England and Wales. It also creates the conditions for youth prison expansion with longer sentences, criminalisation of Gypsy Roma and Traveller children for living in ‘unauthorised encampments’, and arrest of anyone engaged in protest deemed to be causing ‘serious annoyance’. Although 12-17 year olds from anywhere in the country can be incarcerated in a Secure School, the first being located in a region with a high Traveller population and ‘unauthorised’ sites is of deep concern.

So what is a ‘Secure School’?

In 2016, the Taylor Review into the Youth Justice System recommended reforms to child prisons which would place ‘education, healthcare and purposeful activity at the heart of rehabilitation.’ The Ministry of Justice responded to the Taylor Review by proposing Secure Schools – essentially a reconfiguration of the 1990s Secure Training Centre model merged with the Secure Children’s Home model. The theory of carceral education – that people can be remodelled into disciplined citizens via education and training in penal institutions – has been operating for over a century, beginning with the borstal model in 1895. Secure Schools continue this logic, centering upon and decontextualising the harms of the ‘deviant’ individual, rather than addressing systemic, state-enforced conditions of harm as a whole.

What is the difference between a Secure Training Centre and a Secure Children’s Home?

Secure Children’s Homes whilst still prisons and problematic, operate on a smaller scale – incarcerating on average 17 children per institution – staffed by qualified child welfare professionals, mostly run by local authorities as part of their children’s services and have a higher staff to young person ratio. By contrast, Secure Training Centres (STCs) and Young Offender Institutes (YOI) are modelled on adult prisons, run by private companies such as G4S, are accountable to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), and can lock up in excess of 70 children under one roof.

The fact that the first Secure School pilot is at the notorious Medway Secure Training Centre, site of numerous incidents of physical and sexual abuse and the location of the UK’s first borstal, shows no break with the past. Shout out to Community Action on Prison Expansion (CAPE) for covering Medway’s revamp last year.

But aren’t secure schools an improvement on STCs and YOIs?

The British Association of Social Workers has dismissed Secure Schools as a 1920s style penal approach rooted in the past, whilst the End Child Imprisonment coalition including Article 39, Child Rights International Network, Just for Kids Law and The Howard League convened a letter of 36 organisations calling for the permanent closure of Medway STC. The charities have also written extensively on their opposition to Secure Schools and have campaigned for decades to end institutional child abuse. For them, the fact that Secure Schools follow a punitive and control-orientated regime, have departed from the small scale Secure Children’s Home model, are accountable to the Ministry of Justice and not the Department for Education, and do not offer any roadmap to the total abolition of child imprisonment, means they cannot be viewed, in their eyes, as progressive.

Medway STC will undergo refurbishment – to the now ballooned contract cost of £20 million, up from £5 million when first awarded in 2019 – to reopen in 2022 as ‘Oasis Restore’ run by Multi-Academy Trust Oasis.

But aren’t Oasis a progressive education charity?

Oasis Community Learning is a charity and like many major charities are structured like a corporation comprising a board, CEO, Directors and HR consultants, protecting and reproducing a global brand. The Christian Evangelical roots and ethos of Oasis means that there is a missionary-like drive and story to the organisation which resonates with like-minded believers but also inevitably leaves Oasis exposed to serious reputational risk in undertaking running a child prison.

Large organisations with a public image to keep clean, tend to sweep their dirt under the carpet. Rather than take responsibility for structural failings or high-powered staff violating codes of conduct, it is common for organisations with strong public moral codes and hype to protect expensive senior leaders at the cost of less structurally complicit, less powerful staff. The UK education system is rife with this kind of suppression and denial of harmful adult behaviour to protect school and MultiAcademy Trust reputation. Take this reputational defence culture into a prison context and believing the hype could mean disbelieving survivors; believing the hype could mean hiding the inevitable violent, oppressive systems and regimes that secure schools materially and conceptually cannot avoid. I am not saying this has or will happen with Oasis but the conditions for it to do so are present for any MAT.

Carceral Educationalists

Some of the educational ideas operating within Oasis academies on the outside look set to be replicated on the ‘inside’. Instructional coaching via the Powerful Action Steps package which Oasis, like many other academies have bought in to, works to ‘drill’ educators in formulaic approaches to relationships and behaviour management. PAS related coaching includes instructing staff on how many seconds they should stare at a child whilst disciplining them or what hand movements to use in placating a class.

Oasis Restore will use the Pearson Behaviour Assessment tool [1] a programme used to score and measure behaviour, pulled off the virtual shelf by schools looking for systemic ways to measure and compare student behaviours. Pearson leads the way in the marketisation of education worldwide, promoting Artificial Intelligence and platform education, as well as routinised approaches to teaching and learning in ‘low-fee’ private schools in sub-Saharan Africa, India and parts of South East Asia, leading to concerns about automation of parts of the profession. The concern here is around loss of human, intuitive, immeasurable and illegible relationships; for example, what VAR is in comparison to a referee’s experience and knowledge of the beautiful game; the permission to go with the flow of an interaction and respond to it in the present.

Oasis also uses Iris – a corporate education package which films teachers in the classroom for senior leaders to observe, monitor and performance manage them. Iris also offers teachers a headset whereby senior leaders can deliver commands and respond in real-time to evolving situations in the classroom, telling teachers what to do and say; an instructional panopticon in every class. It is not clear which Oasis academies use this feature of the package or whether it will be included in Oasis Restore. Its purchase however is reflective of an extractive, non-relational, standardising approach to education common to the academised education sector.

Oasis schools follow a neuroplasticity theory [2] informed Cognitive Behavioural Therapy style approach to behaviour and relationships expressed through their trademark Nine Habits. Staff are instructed to over-repeat these in daily interactions with pupils until they become inhabited. The 9 habits are emblazoned across school walls, classrooms, comms and policies. The values expressed by the habits - compassionate, patient, humble, joyful, honest, hopeful, considerate, forgiving and self-controlled - are not in question, it is their mandatory application [3] and the instructional drilling aspect to them in a carceral setting that is of concern.

Self-regulation and self-control are behavioural mantras and expectations that are constantly levelled at young people in schools under conditions which invisibilise power relationships and social harms, and locate responsibility for experience as entirely within the decontextualised individual. For Black and Global Majority pupils, the denial of white supremacy, colonialism, and disavowal of the urgent need for social change, in the service of extracting grades and discipline, is in abolitionist teacher Bettina Love’s words - spirit murder. Secure Schools are spirit murder.

CBT for PTSD?

“Challenges such as not being able to control one’s emotions or understand oneself or others, plus living with neurodevelopmental disorders are common amongst young people in the criminal justice system”Oasis Restore webpage

Our emotions or understanding of ourselves and others come with knowing how we came to be where we are; with honest teaching and learning about systems of power, history and resistance with the fostering of genuine agency as a goal – this is what brings healing. Trauma is political. As abolitionist teacher Cierra Kaler-Jones explains, “Under the guise of capitalism, the dominant workforce development framework of SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) encourages young people to stifle the very emotions that have long contributed to a history of resistance, so that they can contribute to society as a worker. SEL has long been about decreasing ‘problem’ behaviour. Even the terms ‘manage’ and ‘regulate’ are words commonly associated with transactional business tactics”.

A BMA report into the health of young people in secure settings found that over 60% had suffered a head injury at some point. An NHS census of incarcerated young people in 2016 found that over half of the young people had ‘at least one mental health or neurodevelopmental need. A third had two or more such needs’. What does healing look like for 12-17 year olds who have been injured or been labelled SEND or neurodevelopmentally disordered? A concern with the approach detailed in Oasis’s application is that the process of ‘restoration’ is constant to the point of being a form of perpetual surveillance and modification. “Our goal will be to ensure that we make as much of the ‘unstructured time’ our students spend in OAR purposeful. ‘Free time’ will be as much a part of the overall curriculum as ‘lesson time’”. [4]

Exclusion is no accident

“National systems – of welfare, health, education, housing etc. – are failing the most vulnerable young people who, as a result, all too frequently find themselves caught in a persistent loop of exclusion that defines their future and inhibits their life chances” Steve Chalke, Oasis Founder

Young people do not ‘find themselves caught in a persistent loop of exclusion’ – they are put there by teachers and Heads who make the decision to exclude them. Avoiding the responsibility of those who bear structural responsibility for exclusion re-centres the child as the problem.

Disability is the overarching equality characteristic of excluded children in the UK school system. Themajority of children in youth prisons were temporarily or permanently excluded from school. The school to prison pipeline also carries a disproportionate number of Black and Global Majority, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller and disabled young people into marginality because of their marginalised identities. It is not accidental. If Oasis wanted to ‘break the cycle’ of disability and racialised inequality they could ban the weapon that keeps it turning – school exclusions. But this is resource-intensive, bottom-up work; not as optically ‘redemptive’ and does not perform the saviour role that Oasis Restore projects. The difference with the work of abolition is that it focuses on intervention and investment in harm prevention at its roots, dealing with causes and not symptoms.

Oasis Dollars

Incarcerated youth in Oasis Restore are expected to work and train in a number of trades - a feature common to Secure Training Centres and for some in the context, welcomed. The issue however, is whether the labour is voluntary or coerced; whether the remuneration for the labour is fair and whether workers can collectively bargain over terms, conditions and pay.

Those jailed in Oasis Restore will be paid for their work – be it in ‘The Clink’ style cafe or ‘market place’ comprising hair and beauty, performance arts, fitness or vehicle repair services - in Oasis Dollars. [5] This scrip-like currency can be spent in the Market or on ‘other privileges’.[6]These ‘privileges’ and the actual monetary value of these dollars is unspecified.

Performing Restoration?

Incarcerated youth in Oasis Academy Restore will be expected to build relationships with Oasis students on the outside, it seems in order to a) model/perform how restored they are becoming, b) perform a symbolic, state-enforcing role, similar to that of police officers or former prisoners who visit schools to promote deterrence to offending and c) normalise incarceration as a response to harms.

The problem isn’t the building of relationships between incarcerated and non-incarcerated youth, it is how and by whom these relationships are managed, framed and represented. ‘OAR would seek to create opportunities for students to share their success stories and life experiences with OAR students through letters or videos. This would be so that, no matter their family situation, all students understand that they are part of a wider community of peer support’. [7]

These suggested interactions appear to be performative, reward-orientated, not on the terms of those participating, and are mainly being used to promote the Oasis brand.

Incentives to incarcerate

Youth incarceration rates in the UK have been falling for the last decade. According to last year’s figures, the number of children who received a caution or sentence has fallen by 82% over the last ten years, with a 12% fall in the last year. However, the duration of sentences is increasing to on average 18.6 months – up 30% from 11.3 months in 2019. It is in sentencing policy where the Secure School model could expand.

In their submission to the MoJ on transforming youth custody, the British Association of Social Workers, whilst opposed the carceral model, flagged short sentences as incompatible with carceral education goals: “The short duration of intervention governed by the length of the sentence, renders the task of effecting real change impossible within the time available. Therefore, we would support an extensive examination into the present legal situation in how we deal with children who offend."

For MATs running prisons, longer sentences are an incentive to properly ‘restoring’ young people inside. For those in power it means maintaining and extending systems of sorting, classifying and disciplining young people unfit for mainstream capital. For abolitionists and youth impacted, it spells more harm and internalisation and perpetuation of systems of oppression.

Abolition now

Last August 2020, there were 571 children in custody in England and Wales. Of these, 90% were detained in prisons and 10% (56 children) were held in secure children’s homes. According to the Campaign to End Child Imprisonment, fifteen secure children’s homes were closed in England between 2003 and 2018. They say: “Had these establishments still been open when the government committed in 2016 to phase out juvenile young offender institutions and secure training centres, we doubt whether any new additional capacity would now be necessary.” The facts on the ground point to intensification and expansion of the YOI-STC child prison model via Secure Schools at a time when child incarceration is at its lowest for decades and could be abolished, a demand not separate from the demand to abolish prisons and prison culture altogether.

At the same time as the government attacks ‘progressivism’ in education, Europe’s biggest education union - the National Education Union - has passed motions to end school exclusions and campaign against the PCSC Bill in its entirety including Secure Schools. As 10,000 additional prison places await the newly criminalised, abolitionist ideas – transformative justice, harm reduction, ending school exclusions, a trauma and survivor informed approach to ending sexual violence, and campaigns to oust police from schools - are in the ascendancy. The PCSC Bill has ignited an intersectional movement building on generations of disability justice, antiracism, breaking the gender binary, no borders, traveller freedom and decarceration. If Secure Schools represent spirit murder, our movements of young and elders are spirit emancipation – our freedom is in our hands.

TJ Coati is a member of the Coalition of Antiracist Educators and No More Exclusions.

[1] p67 [2] p17 [3] p78 [4] p18 [5] p43 [6] p47 [7] p42 Oasis Community Learning bid to run the UK’s first Secure School

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