‘Our theme is unrelenting love’: England to open first safe school for young offenders | young people

Children convicted of the gravest crimes will be shown ‘unrelenting love’ in England’s first secure school, where they will live in bedrooms instead of cells, according to its evangelical Christian founder.

Reverend Steve Chalke of Oasis Academies, who won the contract to run the school on behalf of the Department of Justice (MoJ), said unrelenting love was not a ‘hippie’ concept but a way to build trust with children who “no one has cared for very often” before.

The house will have gardens designed by a winner of the Chelsea Flower Show and is inspired by similar therapeutic institutions in Scandinavia. It is fashioned out of the Medway Secure Training Center, a youth detention center that was closed in March 2020 after a series of abuse scandals.

The Secure School was originally due to open in autumn 2020 but now hopes to accept its first pupils in early 2024 after costs fell from £4.9million to £36.5million. The National Audit Office said the estimate jumped “primarily due to significant design revisions after due diligence”.

The school will be headed by a “senior director”, Andrew Willett, rather than a prison warden, and children will be cared for by teachers, not guards, said Chalke, who oversees 52 Oasis academies in England. “We don’t have young offenders. We have students. Just as we have rooms and we are at home. There is nothing left of that alienating language,” he said.

Instead of living in wings, the children will be grouped in four “houses”, and they will be able to relax in living rooms “with sofas and a coffee table to put your feet on”. Chalke said he was determined that the children’s bedrooms would not have bars and instead would be reinforced with tempered glass.

Everything about the school’s design, from the colors to the furniture and the garden, is meant to “de-stress” children who are “overcoming trauma, grief, abuse, loss and neglect,” Chalke said. A “therapeutic colors” expert worked as a consultant on the project to advise which paint will help keep children calm.

When children misbehave or commit crimes, they “communicate some of the anxiety and chaos in their lives,” Chalke said. “My wife tells me that the more anxious I am, the more stressed I am, the more stupid I behave. We all behave and do stupid things when we are stressed and anxious. We want to take care of these young people and that’s why we called it Oasis Restore, because it’s about restoration.

As well as studying a comprehensive curriculum including England and math, students will be able to record songs in an on-site music studio set up by Judah Armani, who founded InHouse Records, a pioneering record label run by and for the prisoners. Those who participated in the music program in traditional prisons, including Prison of Isisan institution for young offenders, have a recidivism rate of less than 1%.

“The studio will teach young people life skills and capture their imagination. It will give them journeys to good employment, beyond our walls, while working with them in a therapeutic way,” Chalke said.

In December 2016, the MoJ announced plans to create two new secure schools in England, one in the North West and one in the South East. No plan for the northern school has been released.

“Juvenile justice must be reformed. It needs a revolution,” Chalke said. A little bit less two-thirds (64%) of children and released youth re-offend within 12 months of release, and each commits an average of four new offences. In February 2022, there were 414 young people in juvenile detention – in secure children’s homes, young offenders’ establishments and secure training centres.

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A maximum of 49 children – girls and boys aged 12 to 18 – will live in Restore, either after being sentenced or in pre-trial detention awaiting trial. The MoJ’s Placement Board will decide which children to send to school, and Chalke said Oasis has no veto power over who to accept.

The school, which will work with NHS England, will soon start recruiting 180 people. Unlike much of the rest of the prison system, no services will be outsourced.

“Everyone has to be passionate about young people. Our theme is unrelenting love,” Chalke said. “You know, I was asked about it. And people say ‘oh, you can’t just do lovey-dovey, you know’, or ‘it looks hippy’ or whatever. But relentless love has limits, it has respect.

He said he had intended Restore’s slogan to “set the kids free”, but he vetoed it. Instead, its motto will be “creating a secure future for young people”. But Chalke said his brainchild was important. “If we don’t release them, it’s a waste of public money.”

Barry F. Howard