Don’t just throw away the key – educating incarcerated young people

In a guest blog for CYCJ, University of Gloucestershire academics Dr Adeela ahmed Shafi MBE shares an innovative approach to the education of young people who are incarcerated.

Locking them up and throwing away the key is effectively what a society does when it incarcerates young people who offend, if the education offered does not address their specific needs.  There is ample research evidence which documents the challenges that young people who end up in conflict with the law have faced.  These include having dropped out, been excluded or ‘off-rolled’ from school, communication and behavioural difficulties.  Special educational needs are almost five times higher in young people who offend – not to mention social and emotional difficulties.  This is before we even begin to look at the deprived socio-economic backgrounds characterised by poor housing and poverty, a higher prevalence of familial drug or alcohol abuse and a higher likelihood of a parent who has also been to prison.

So, needless to say, the challenges are rife in the short lives of these young people well before they get behind bars.  School has generally not been a positive experience and many of them are disengaged with education and learning.

That said, much of the educational provision in secure settings is modelled on the traditional school – yes, the one that failed them.  So how are they supposed to then suddenly generate a desire for learning?  Well, they are not…unless, we change the way things are done when they are in prison and take a completely different approach to education and learning that truly has the chance to be transformative.  This is what two Erasmus+ EU funded projects are doing.

Led by myself, the University of Gloucestershire teams are running innovative projects that share the common aim of improving the future prospects of young people in conflict with the law. Our first project, RENYO or ‘Re-engaging Young Offenders in Education and Learning’, is designed to re-engage the young people with learning as a pre-requisite for education.  The second project is designed to develop social and emotional competencies in the young people through active games and is imaginatively called ‘Active Games 4 Change’ (AG4C). RENYO does this through flipping the idea of learning by focusing on what the young person is interested in – rather grandly called authentic inquiry.  This is then connected to curriculum subjects such as English, maths, science or the arts.  It is designed so that the young person is the starting point (authentic).   Skilled staff at the University of Gloucestershire work with partners with access to secure settings in Italy, Spain, Germany and the UK to train educators in this approach.

For AG4C, the expert staff in the School of Sports & Exercise have teamed up with the psychologists in the School of Education to design bespoke games and activities that are fun and active to develop key competencies such as managing anger, working in a team and being aware of one’s self.  In doing so, the young people develop not only the competences, but also confidence in many of the skills that non-offending young people take for granted.  This project is being piloted in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Romania, Hungary, Turkey and the UK.

In conclusion, unless we are innovative in the education of incarcerated people, we are likely to continue to see the same reoffending rates hovering around 67%.  After all, once a young person has reached the point of custodial sentencing, what have we got to lose in terms of education?  And herein lies the opportunity to be innovative and take some risks.  Risks that could be worth taking if it can transform even one young person’s life.

For more information or to receive updates regarding these action projects, contact

About our blogger

Dr Adeela ahmed Shafi MBE is a Reader in Education at the University of Gloucestershire. Read more.

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