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A few weeks ago, in December I was deep in Twitter conversation with @JarlethOBrien and some other interesting tweeters about Ofsted and the frequency of their visits. We were discussing the fact that mainstream schools deemed to be Outstanding are exempt from Ofsted visits on a permanent basis. Special schools do not have this luxury. We were not moaning about this fact, more just discussing the fact that the sectors should have parity. My school, 3 times Outstanding will be due Ofsted after 5 years, yet Jarleth said that some special schools only manage 3 years between visits. The tweets continued and then Richard Albery joined the conversation. He informed us that Ofsted visit SCHs every 3 years. Well, I had no idea what an SCH was! I sent him a hurried DM and we exchanged email addresses. Richard then emailed me information of the ‘Secure Children’s Home’ he works at. I was fascinated with the information I received. Richard doesn’t blog at the moment due to his commitment to his M.A. I sought and received his permission to publish his information on my blog, in the style of an interview. I thought if I had a gap in my knowledge, others might do too.

This is the transcript of the emails.

Richard: I’m pleased you found the information useful. It is a fascinating place to work. Currently re-offend rates are high across the whole secure estate. In recent months it has been a challenge to motivate the young people. Some have been out of education for so long they have given up on it and lost all sense of purpose when it comes to learning and progressing.

Cherryl: Does every LA have one?

Richard: No, there are 15 Secure Children’s Homes in the UK of which 9 have contracts with the Youth Justice Board (YJB). The places with a unit with YJB contracts are; Lincolnshire, Sheffield, Bristol, Manchester, Leeds, Newton Aycliffe, Hampshire, Nottinghamshire and there is one in Wales too. We are a regulated service within a LA but the vast majority of funding comes from the YJB. 

The system is essentially a three tier system, Young Offenders Institution (YOI), Secure Training Centre (STC) and Secure Children’s Home.

YOIs are very similar to adult jails. Not great places, larger numbers (150-300) high re-offending rates, high amount of restraints, and more violence. Very much like adult prison.

STC are like larger versions of SCH (30-65) privately operated. There are only 4 of them with one shutting in the New Year. Often their young people are too aggressive/physically bigger etc. for an SCH but too vulnerable for a YOI.

SCH. Small units (8-20) operated by a LA with YJB contracts. Small class sizes, full time timetables. A very varied curriculum; vocational and more traditional including the teaching of Functional Skills. Our young people are often very violent, suffering from undiagnosed mental health issues, vulnerable, younger young people and simply those that would pose a risk to themselves or others in the other two types of establishments.

Cherryl: What are the criteria for being in one?

Richard: Whatever you can be arrested and convicted for. We cater for any criminal. An odd phrase but that’s exactly what we do. Currently we have children convicted of serious sex crimes, GBH, Murder and arson. Of course we can also take them as young as 10 as that is the criminal age of responsibility although it is very rare for a child under 12 to find themselves in custody. It is also a complicated process. We take both sentenced and remand prisoners. We also take young people who need to be kept in a secure unit for welfare reasons. A child that is in care, running away, involved in risk taking behaviour, sexual exploitation, gangs, extremism etc. This still goes through the courts but they aren’t convicted criminals. They are often the most difficult young people to deal with. The remaining units are designated welfare units although all the SCH’s will accept welfare referrals (we only have a maximum of two at a time though).

Cherryl: Placement without parental permission?

Richard: Yes. The courts and YJB will try and place young people near to where they live but parents have no say. Youth offending workers can make a suggestion but it is all down to empty beds and ultimately the decision of the judge and the referrals department at the YJB. Young people can apply for transfers but within SCH’s they are rare.

Cherryl: Are they like a Borstal?

Richard: Thankfully not. Of course YOI’s aren’t too different but we certainly aren’t like Borstal. We focus much more on education and development of social skills and working with young people to identify why they do the things they do. We are much more supportive.

Cherryl: Are the young children violent?

Richard: In a word, yes. However, don’t be fooled by the media or those that claim to know what we do. We have detailed risk assessments of all young people, Crisis management plans and far more staff than say a YOI or even a school. I’ve been at the unit 5 years and have only been bitten once, spat at a couple of times and kicked twice. Once is too many times but I am also fully aware that I am working with probably the 0.5% of the Country’s most difficult, misunderstood and volatile children. I have become an expert at catching tables and chairs. Sometimes you know that what you need to say to the young person or that something will make them ‘blow’ but sometimes it has to happen for many reasons. We have both teachers and care staff. The education department has a philosophy of spotting antecedents and making a note of them in order to help the child next time. Many of our young people have insecure attachments (I can talk forever on attachment issues/disorder and have delivered training on it); they despise education because their previous experiences were negative, lots of exclusions and so on.

On the whole the violence towards staff isn’t such an issue. Of course the young people fall out and fights can happen but again you develop a sixth sense and over time you will probably learn to spot when something may kick off. Often violence is a reactionary behaviour in our environment. They can’t run away or escape from a situation without asking to be let out of a room or needing a member of staff to spot that they may need to leave etc. so that can cause an issue. Also some young people, particularly the ones that may be new to custody think all places are like jail, therefore they think violence is answer. They see it as a way to prove themselves or move up the food chain so to speak although they soon change when they realise it isn’t like prison.

Cherryl: What is restraint minimisation.

Richard: Restraint minimisation is essentially a policy we have to follow regarding how many restraints we have. What we do to lower the amount we have and how we do it. On a personal note I find it bizarre that there doesn’t appear to be a clear cut national strategy for minimisation.

We don’t have as many restraints as you would imagine, especially given the volatile nature of our young people. We are in a lucky position in that we can simply leave a young person on a corridor to calm down (all doors in the unit are locked as you would expect). We can simply put them in their bedrooms (they are bedrooms, not cells. They have TV, en-suite, desk and MP3; all controlled by the staff from the outside of the room although young people can earn the right to have a remote for them). One thing I would say is that certainly in our unit we try as much as possible to create a plan for a young person that may be a child that does get restrained a lot so we don’t have too. They aren’t nice things to do, nobody wants to be involved in one but it is ultimately a possibility that you will be involved in them. 

Again I could do a whole inset on restraint minimisation, the effects on staff and young people as well as successful methods to lower the amount that a place may have. 

On a final note I certainly think we have a lot to offer in the way of training and passing on of experience to mainstream. Sadly we are often disregarded or simply not thought of, even within our own LA’s. As you yourself have admitted, you were completely unaware of what we do etc but unlike many who just don’t ask or simply look at other options you asked the questions. Just because we chose to work with convicted young people doesn’t mean we don’t have something to pass on and vice versa.

I could go on forever about what we do, how we designed and keep re-designing our curriculum and assessment.

I hope this has given you some of the information you were after? Feel free to ask anymore questions or even visit us or me visit you. 

Similarly I am interested in what your school does. I think visiting many different schools can open our eyes to new ideas, how things can be developed and networking is certainly important. Sharing ideas and best practice is paramount to success.

Hope this sheds some light on a relatively unknown world.

I am deeply grateful to Richard for answering my questions. I have learned a great deal about a sector of education I knew nothing about. I was truly educated that day when Richard joined our conversation. This kind of ‘sharing’ is Twitter at its best.

For more information see here or tweet @richardalbery84 He is a lovely guy and is genuinely willing to share his knowledge.