Children convicted of the most serious crimes will receive “relentless love” at England’s first secure school where they will live in bedrooms rather than cells, according to its evangelical founder.
The Reverend Steve Chalk, of Oasis Academies, which won the contract to run the school on behalf of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), said tough love was not a “hippy” concept but a way of building trust with children who “very often nobody cared” before .
The home will have gardens landscaped by a Chelsea Flower Show winner and modeled after similar therapeutic facilities in Scandinavia. It is being created out of Medway Secure Learning Centre, a youth detention center which was closed in March 2020 after a series of abuse scandals.
The safe school was originally due to open in autumn 2020 but now hopes to welcome its first students in early 2024 after costs rose from £4.9m to £36.5m. The State control said the estimate jumped “primarily due to significant design changes following due diligence.”
The school will be managed by a “Headmaster”, Andrew Willetts, rather than a prison warden, and children will be looked after by teachers rather than guards, said Chalk, who oversees 52 Oasis academies in England. “We don’t have young offenders. We have students. Just like we have bedrooms and we are at home. This foreign language is not left,” he said.
Instead of living in outbuildings, the children will be grouped into four “houses” and will be able to relax in living rooms “with couches and coffee tables to put your feet up on.” Chalk said he’s set on not having bars in the children’s bedrooms, but instead having them reinforced with tempered glass.
Everything about the school’s design, from the colors to the furniture to the garden, is meant to “de-stress” children who are “overcoming trauma, grief, violence, loss and neglect,” Chalk said. An expert in “therapeutic colors” works as a consultant on the project and advises on which paint will help keep the children calm.
When children misbehave or commit a crime, they “transmit some of the anxiety and chaos in their lives,” Chalk said. “My wife tells me that the more I worry, the more stressed I am, the stupider 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 full curriculum including English and Maths, students will be able to record songs in an on-site music studio created by Jude Armani, who founded InHouse Records, a pioneering record label run by and for prisoners. Those who participated in the music program in traditional prisons, including Prison of Isisinstitutions for young offenders, the recidivism rate is less than 1%.
“The studio will teach young people life skills and capture their imagination. It will give them ways to do good work outside of our walls, at the same time as therapeutic work with them,” Chalk said.
In December 2016, the Ministry of Justice announced plans to create two new secure schools in England, one in the North West and one in the South East. No plans for a northern school have been released.
“Youth justice must be reformed. This requires a revolution,” Chalke said. Just under two-thirds (64%) of children and young people released from custody reoffend within 12 months of release, with an average of four new offenses each. As of February 2022, 414 young people were held in prisons – in protective orphanages, hostels for minors, and protective educational centers.
A maximum of 49 children – girls and boys between the ages of 12 and 18 – will live at Restore either post-sentence or while in pre-trial detention awaiting trial. The allocation board under the Ministry of Justice will decide which children to send to the school, and Chalk said Oasis does not have a veto over who to accept.
The school, which will work with NHS England, will soon start recruiting 180 staff. Unlike much of the rest of the prison system, the services will not be outsourced.
“Everyone should admire young people. Our theme is merciless love,” Chalk said. “You know, I was questioned about it. And people say, “Wow, you can’t just play love,” or “that sounds hippie,” or whatever. But merciless love has limits, it has respect.”
He said he wanted the Restore bar to be a “children’s liberation” but was vetoed. Instead, its motto will be “creating a secure future for young people”. But Chalk said his original idea was important. “If we don’t release them, it’s a waste of public money.”