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Education: From a prison to a school

24 May 2024

Something remarkable is happening in Rochester: a place of punishment has been transformed into a place of restoration. Huw Spanner visits

Oasis Restore

Exterior of Oasis Restore

Exterior of Oasis Restore

THE mouth of the Medway has a long association with punitive detention, since French prisoners of war were incarcerated in rotting prison hulks during the Napoleonic wars. In the past century, the village of Borstal gave its name to a juvenile prison that, over the years, became synonymous with a harsh regime of “reform”.

Today, two of the UK’s 141 prisons and young-offender institutions, HM Prisons Cookham Wood and Rochester, are located there.

Next to them, Medway Secure Training Centre became notorious after an undercover investigation in 2015, reported by the BBC’s Panorama in 2016, exposed a culture of child-bullying by its G4S warders, including physical violence and insulting, aggressive, and racist language. The centre was closed.

This summer, under new management and after a refurbishment that cost more than £40 million, the site of the Medway Secure Training Centre will reopen as Britain’s first “secure school”. Named Oasis Restore, it is the latest addition to the Oasis group of academies founded by the Revd Steve Chalke.

The school is officially a partnership between Oasis, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Education, and the NHS. The change is anything but nominal. Although the premises still look much the same from the street, inside they have been transformed in both appearance and purpose.

Mr Chalke insists that the new school represents “an abandoning of a penal approach”. Oasis Restore will be “a place of healing”, he says, and its strategy one of “relentless love”. It will be “first of all a home, and then a school, and then a health centre. The whole experience children will have here will be both educational and therapeutic.”

Many people may be surprised that such a “revolution in youth justice” (as Mr Chalke calls it) has occurred under a Conservative government. It was John Major who declared, in 2011, that “society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less.”

Oasis RestoreA typical bedroom at Oasis Restore

Some of the children who will be placed at the school will have been found guilty of serious crimes, including manslaughter or attempted murder, and sentenced accordingly. Others will merely be on remand for a few months, awaiting trial (and, quite possibly, acquittal).

Certainly, the staff at Oasis Restore will not make light of the crimes that the children have been charged with or convicted of, and will seek to help them to come to terms with their own antisocial behaviour; but understanding what is going on in their heads is crucial.

The question, Mr Chalke says, is not what is wrong with such children, but what has happened to them. Most of them, he explains, will have experienced “extreme trauma”, violence, abuse, or neglect. Most will also be neurodiverse. When they first arrive at the school, he says, “none of them will trust anyone. The only way to gain their trust is to love them.”

The new school’s director of care and well-being is Dr Celia Sadie, a consultant clinical psychologist who has specialised in adolescent mental health. In Oasis Restore, she says, every aspect of the children’s lives is designed to be therapeutic.

Eventually, there will be more than 200 full-time staff, and every one will be responsible for both care and learning. Staff go through a strict vetting process, including a full day of assessment, even before the interview stage, with consideration give to character as much as to qualifications. And the training that they receive is long and rigorous, she says, “so that they can bring their best selves to their jobs, which will take both grit and gumption”.

A great amount of thought has gone into this, she says. “Children can be very expert at dividing adults and playing them off against each other. We have invested in deconstructing our various separate disciplines so that we can integrate them.”

WHEN the school is running at full capacity, perhaps in 18 months’ time, it will accommodate 49 children, ranging in age from 12 to 18. Some will be detained there for a few months, some for years.

New arrivals will be given an “induction” of up to 12 weeks, Dr Sadie says, designed to give them “the softest landing possible” after the shock of their experience in court, and to give the staff time to get to know them, and to learn what their undiagnosed needs might be.

After that, they will be allocated to one of three “houses”, named Forest, Mountain, and River. (The old prison terminology of “wings”, along with “inmates”, “cells”, and “warders”, has gone.) Each house contains four comfortable flats, varying in size, where the children will learn to live in community and acquire social skills. No one will cook for them; rather, they will be “cooked with”, Mr Chalke says.

Each child will have their own, well furnished bedroom and shower room, with a wooden — not steel — door that they can lock from the inside if they feel threatened. They will be locked in only at night, as much for their own safety as anything else.

The motto of Oasis Restore — “A secure future for young lives” — is nicely ambiguous: the school will fulfil the requirement of the courts that these children must be detained for the protection of the public, but also will protect them from each other and from themselves, and will work in every way possible to build their trust and confidence.

Oasis RestoreOne of the workshops at Oasis Restore

One trustee, who had himself been through the youth justice system as a lad, was moved to tears when he saw one of the new bedrooms.

Dr Sadie emphasises that the school is “a refurb, not a new build”; Oasis might have done many things differently if it had been starting from scratch. There are, for example, no trees on the site, although Mr Chalke says that he hopes that, in time, the outside of the buildings, still rather stark, will be covered in murals.

Many of the changes Oasis has made, he says, have been “hard fought for”. He gives as an example the fact that, thanks to strengthened glass, there are now no bars on any of the windows.

Another “big advance”, Dr Sadie says, is that, as many security doors are now opened electronically, none of the staff will carry — let alone jangle — bunches of keys.

Everything down to the colour schemes has been carefully thought through after extensive consultation.

In the dining room, the chairs are comfortable and quite stylish, but their bases are filled with sand, Mr Chalke points out, “so that no one can pick one up and throw it”. Even the pictures on the walls, he says frankly, “will be such that you can’t kill anyone with one of them”.

THE school’s director of learning and enrichment, Cara Beckett, says that the plan is for the staff “to have as much meaningful time as possible with the children every day”. At school, each class will have a limit of five students, with three members of staff: a teacher, a teaching assistant, and a youth worker.

Every child will have a computer screen in their room, which will enable them both to do schoolwork and to communicate with their families. In the library, they will have access to all the learning materials that Oasis Community Learning put online as a response to the pandemic.

The school will offer “high aspirations for students, high expectation, and challenge”, Ms Beckett says. Children who have arrived without any sense of a future will be able to choose from several vocational pathways. The school has two well-equipped music studios, woodwork and metalwork workshops, and even a hairdressing salon.
The aim is to ensure that the children have “14 hours of meaningful activity a day”. Ritual and routine will be important, Ms Beckett says. After their classes, the children will return to their flats to eat, and perhaps receive a visit from members of their family. In the evenings, they will be “doing something enriching”, she says.

Enrichment activities may include sport, music, debates, gardening, or coding, for example, or trying out activities with people invited on site who work in the arts, sound production, catering, and others, so that the children can find out what enthuses them. At weekends, there will be two or three such “sessions of enrichment”.


THE roots of Oasis Restore’s approach uses both a New Testament theology of grace and redemption and the insights of modern neuroscience.

For Mr Chalke, it is deeply personal. He recalls the lesson that he learnt as an idealistic young man running a home for care-leavers which he and his wife had opened in Peckham. “I expected them to be grateful, but, instead, they were rude and antisocial. They stole everything and they fought each other.

Oasis RestoreCommon-room area in one of the six-bedroomed flats

“It took a long time for the penny to drop, but, in the end, I realised that they were wounded — but that these wounds were in their heads, and the only medicine that would heal them was love.”

Five years ago, he says, when he heard that Oasis had won the commission to run Britain’s first secure school, “I went off on my own and did a little dance.”

Originally, he wanted its motto to be “Setting children free”. Not surprisingly, that was vetoed by the Ministry of Justice, but it is clear that, for Mr Chalke, that is the real purpose of the school.

“Currently, the percentage of children in youth custody in the UK who end up in prison within ten years is always in the high nineties,” he says. His hope is that Oasis Restore will pioneer a very different pathway.

“To go on this journey is a precious thing, a sacred thing,” he reflects. “To me, this is the most joyous opportunity.”


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