When is a college not a college?

What will this young man learn from his education?

What will this young man learn from his education?

I sometimes find myself confused by the use of words. Or maybe it’s the misuse of words that alarms me so. In today’s Guardian newspaper, a report by the Home Affairs Editor Alan Travis appears under the headline “Graying to let staff use force at ‘super-jail’ for children.” The article reports that Chris Graying, Secretary of State for Justice in the UK coalition government, has decided that he will endorse the use of force to restrain the inmates at a proposed privately run “secure college” for teenagers. This despite a court ruling that suggests that such an approach would be counter-productive and potentially damaging to the purpose of the establishment.

Perhaps I am being too sensitive, but it is the use of the term “secure college” that causes me a certain amount of angst when reading this report. College is a word that I normally associate with an educational institution, charged with a responsibility to care for students and provide them with opportunities to develop skills, knowledge and understanding through study and practical application. I have visited many such establishments during my forty years as a teacher, but never have I heard any of the staff or students at such an institution discussing the need for physical restraint as a means of promoting learning.

Both Graying and his colleague, the Justice Minister Andrew Selous have emphasised that whilst the establishment which they propose will be developed to house young offenders, its emphasis will be upon providing inmates with an education to prepare them to enter society and contribute to their communities. These are of course, noble sentiments and it is to be hoped that they succeed in this mission. However, as Alan Travis rightly states, the intended £85 million project far from serving the function normally associated with a college is in fact a new form of “super-jail.” The use of euphemisms will have little impact in what is clearly an effort to disguise the true nature of this proposal.

The use of force as a means of promoting education has long been discredited. Whilst in the past some teachers have apparently held the view that knowledge could be beaten into children, it is generally accepted that students  learn best from those teachers for whom they have the greatest respect. Those who attempt to gain such respect through a show of force are almost certain to fail, which is precisely why there should be no place for violence in educational establishments.  As Andrew Neilson from the Howard League for Penal Reform has stated, “The Ministry of Justice has  described the secure college as putting education at the heart of detention, yet this consultation places punishment firmly at the heart of the proposal.” The institution proposed by Mr Grayling and his colleagues does not in any way, resemble a college by any definition that would be acceptable to teachers with a proud history of providing education in this country. I’m sure that if you ask the majority of teachers to define a place that incarcerates young people away from their communities, and enforces discipline through the use of force, they would tell you that this was a jail, a prison or a young offender’s institution. I suspect that the term school or college would be unlikely to cross their minds.

Before I am accused of being a “bleeding heart liberal” (which I quite probably am), I must say that I accept that there are young people who for whatever reason become serial offenders, and require specialist provision and management away from the majority of their peers. This has been the case throughout history and seems likely to be so well into the future. What I am asking however, is that we consider two issues raised in today’s Guardian article. Firstly, that we should be more honest in our choice of terms, and when a new jail is to be created we do not dress this up in the guise of a college. Secondly, that when claiming to address the needs of children and young people, even those who may have committed crimes and been thoroughly obnoxious in their behaviour, we acknowledge that if we choose to manage them through the use of violence, they will believe that this is an acceptable approach to dealing with others and will therefore use this method themselves in the future.