Private companies responsible for the UK’s four secure training centres “did not know what they were doing” when they took on the contracts, Malcolm Stevens, director of children’s services at Oakhill STC, has said.
He told Community Care that private companies had “miscalculated” the task and struggled with a child-centred approach.
“Companies made assumptions at the time when the government was talking about boot camps and child jails. They assumed the government wanted a short, sharp shock for young offenders, rather than the type of care provided by secure children’s homes,” he said.
Stevens made the comments following the latest negative inspection report on Oakhill STC, published last month. The Ministry of Justice appointed him to improve the centre, which is run by Group 4 Securicor, last July.
He also drew up the government’s plans for STCs when a Home Office advisor over a decade ago, and then oversaw the opening of Medway and Rainsbrook STCs for Group 4 in 1998 and 1999.
Stevens told Community Care, that ministers did not support the chief inspector of prisons’ call to temporarily close the centre (see panel). He also cited Ofsted’s verdict that the centre’s capacity to improve had moved from “uncertain” in April 2007 to “promising” in October.
He said that it will take time to turn the culture around but costs “were not an issue” as Group 4 Securicor had given “at least £1m” to improve the centre.
“The culture we need to put in place at STCs such as Oakhill must reward achievement and reinforce success, as opposed to one that punishes and imposes sanctions for misbehaviour.”
Stevens said one of the key challenges would be to reduce the use of restraint against children at Oakhill. Force was used 757 times in the nine months leading up to the last inspection in October last year. “The use of force was so high because of a culture that relied on punishment and sanctions,” he said.
There was also a “direct correlation” between the use of force and assaults by children on staff, he said. “Ninety per cent of assaults on staff occur when they are using physical control on children. Reducing the number of times physical control is used will reduce assaults.”
Stevens said the centre also needed to improve recruitment. Ofsted’s recent inspection cited anecdotal evidence that staff had previously been given jobs when they had not even finished filling in application forms, because of the centre’s “desperation” to recruit.
“The Youth Justice Board must ask why this happened – if it did,” Stevens said. Oakhill currently has 40 vacancies out of more than 220 posts. “They will take time to fill,” he added.
Secure training centres
● Oakhill STC, Milton Keynes, opened August 2004, run by Group 4 Securicor
● Hassockfield STC, County Durham, opened September 1999, run by Serco
● Medway STC, near Rochester, opened April 1998, run by Rebound ECD
● Rainsbrook STC, near Rugby, opened July 1999, run by Rebound ECD
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