The first proposed secure school for young offenders is now three years behind schedule and £31 million over-budget, a National Audit Office investigation has found.
The school, for 49 young people on the site of a former secure training centre in Medway, was supposed to open in autumn 2020 and cost £4.9 million.
But delays mean the school now won’t open until November 2023 at the earliest, with incorrect assumptions about timescale, changes needed to meet Ofsted requirements and arrangements for charity status blamed.
The estimated costs of the project have also ballooned to £36.5 million, an increase of 645 per cent on the Ministry of Justice’s original 2018 estimate. It follows “significant design revisions after due diligence”.
However, this is still less than the £59 million estimated cost of building a secure school from scratch, though the NAO said the final full costs “will not be known until the advanced site designs are complete”.
‘A crisis in the making’
Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the Parliamentary public accounts committee, said years of “mismanagement and poor performance” meant the youth justice system “risks failing many of the children who end up in custody”.
“It feels like a crisis in the making. Children in custody are expected to double by 2024, yet new facilities are delayed and existing ones are failing to meet standards.”
Secure schools were first recommended in the 2016 Taylor review, which called for education to be central to government’s response to dealing with children in custody.
The government initially pledged to open two secure schools, which will be registered as both 16 to 19 academies and secure children’s homes. So far only one is in development.
The Oasis Charitable Trust, sponsor of the 52-school Oasis Community Learning academy trust, was chosen to run the first school in 2019.
The government says the school will cater for 49 pupils and have an annual budget of £10.5 million, based on a cost of between £186,000 and £212,000 per place per year.
But more than three years after the contract was awarded, and over a year after the school was due to open, the site in Medway remains closed.
But Oasis founder Steve Chalke said the charity remains “committed to working with the Ministry of Justice” to open its secure school.
The project, called Oasis Restore, will be a “revolution in the way that we rehabilitate and turn around the lives of children in the youth justice system”, he added.
Secure school delay due to ‘assumptions about timescale’
The NAO said Her Majesty’s Prisons and Probations Service “partly attributes the delay to the assumptions made about the timescale at the start of the project”, as well as changes needed to ensure it meets Ofsted’s certification for a secure children’s home.
Work to develop the basis on which the school can have charitable status has also contributed to the delay.
The NAO said the cost increases stemmed from redesigns to meet secure children’s homes specifications like smaller residential units, the cost of delays and “increased contingency for the construction company”.
Chalke welcomed the funding provided to renovate the existing site.
“All the evidence shows that physical environments matter, and successful models of rehabilitation that have invested in improving physical environment in Scandinavia, Spain and across our nation’s new academy buildings, have turned around children’s lives.”
The opening of the school next year also hinges on government approval for its business plan. According to the NAO, the site would reopen as a secure training centre if approval is not given later this year.
Government ironing out admissions snag
Its development has also hit a snag relating to admissions. As a secure children’s home, the school would have the right to refuse children if they believe they cannot meet their needs.
The prisons service is “considering the details of its funding agreement with Oasis on accommodating all children who need places”, but has “not yet worked out a mechanism to legally enforce this”.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said the department was “committed to ensuring public safety and the best possible outcome for every child in our care”.
“Our new secure school will put education, healthcare and rehabilitation at the heart of our efforts to cut crime and keep the public safe.”
Chalke said education and health were “at the heart of the new secure school, and integrated holistic care and learning will provide children with the life skills and therapeutic support they need to rebuild their lives and enter purposeful education, training or employment”.
“We are excited to be opening the secure school at the end of 2023 and we are in the process of building a team of values-led, high calibre staff to deliver on this vitally important and much-needed reform of the youth justice system.”