‘Our theme is relentless love’: England to open first secure school for young offenders | Young people

Children convicted of the most serious crimes will be shown “relentless love” at England’s first secure school, where they will live in bedrooms instead of cells, according to its evangelical Christian founder.

The Rev Steve Chalke, of Oasis academies, which won the contract to run the school on behalf of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), said relentless love was not a “hippy” concept but a way of building trust with children who “no one has cared about very often” before.

The home will have gardens landscaped by a Chelsea flower show award winner and is modelled on similar therapeutic institutions in Scandinavia. It is being fashioned from the Medway secure training centre, a youth detention centre that was shut down 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 students in early 2024 after costs spiralled from £4.9m to £36.5m. The National Audit Office said the estimate jumped “due mainly to significant design revisions after due diligence”.

The school will be run by a “principal director”, Andrew Willetts, rather than a prison governor, 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 like we have bedrooms, and we are home. There’s none of that alienating language left,” he said.

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

Everything about the school’s design, from the colours to the furniture and garden, is intended to “de-stress” children who are “overcoming trauma and grief and violence and loss and neglect”, Chalke said. An expert in “therapeutic colours” has been working as a consultant on the project to advise which paint will help keep the children calm.

When children misbehave or commit crime they are “communicating some of the anxiety and the chaos in their lives”, Chalke said. “My wife tells me the more anxious I am, the more stressed I am, the more stupidly I behave. We all behave and do stupid things when we’re stressed and anxious. We want to care for 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 England and maths, students will be able to record songs at an on-site music studio set up by Judah Armani, who founded InHouse Records, a pioneering record label run by and for prisoners. Those who have taken part in the music programme in traditional jails, including Isis prison, a young offender institution, have a reoffending rate of under 1%.

“The studio will be teaching young people life skills, and capturing their imagination. It will give them journeys into good employment, beyond our walls, at the same time as working with them therapeutically,” Chalke said.

In December 2016 the MoJ set out its intention to create two new secure schools in England, one in the north-west and one in the south-east. No plans for the northern school have been released.

“Youth justice needs to be reformed. It needs a revolution,” said Chalke. Just under two-thirds (64%) of children and young people released from custody reoffend within 12 months of release, and each of them commit an average of four new offences. As of February 2022 there were 414 young people in youth custody – in secure children’s homes, young offender institutions and secure training centres.

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A maximum of 49 children – girls and boys aged 12 to 18 – will live at Restore, either after being sentenced or while on remand awaiting trial. The MoJ’s placement board will decide which children to send to the school, and Chalke said Oasis did not have a veto on who to accept.

The school, which will work with NHS England, is soon to begin recruiting 180 staff. Unlike much of the rest of the prison system, no service will be outsourced.

“Everyone has to be passionate about young people. Our theme is relentless love,” Chalke said. “You know, I’ve been questioned about that. And people say ‘oh, you can’t just do lovey-dovey, you know’, or ‘that sounds hippy’ or whatever. But relentless love has boundaries, it has respect.”

He said he had wanted Restore’s strapline to be “setting children free” but he was vetoed. Instead its motto will be “creating a secure future for young people”. But Chalke said his original idea was important. “If we don’t set them free, it’s a waste of public money.”

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