Invest when it matters most

March 2011


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We spend 10 times as much putting a young person through ‘crime school’ than high school. Dr JOHN LANGLEY asks why.

A transformation is happening in our attitude to imprisonment which should (ironically) improve society’s appreciation of the value of schools. It is well understood by the public that the reasons many people end up in prison are to do with failures in their families, communities and schools.

In recent years there has been a subtle shift in the story: where it once seemed ‘society’ was to blame for turning people to crime, the public has increasingly become more comfortable with the idea that criminals have become ‘bad’ people because family life and schooling have let them down in some way. Groups such as the Sensible Sentencing Trust and vociferous individual commentators such as Michael Laws draw attention to such shifts.

Part of the result has been an increase in programmes for prisoners seeking to teach them ‘life skills’. These programmes aim to help the increasingly incarcerated learn who they are, where they belong, how to get along with others and cope with the many hurdles life throws up for all of us.

When located in prisons, these programmes cost 10 times as much as running them in schools. Similarly, it costs 10 times more (around $90,000 a year) to keep someone in prison than to put someone through secondary school each year ($9000 or so). Prison programmes apply once criminals have already passed through the schooling system and have gone on to inflict cost and misery on others.

The aim of life skills programmes is a function of education and all services provided for children. One of the five competencies of our compulsory schooling system is to teach citizens how to participate and contribute to society – essentially, how to become fit to live and be lived with. So, if we are increasingly willing to pay for this in prisons, why do so many people resent the same in schools? Why do so many people insist on schools sticking to the ‘three Rs’, which are only means to other ends, not ends in themselves?

We know from extensive research that success in our schools is in significant part a result of the nature of the relationships and feelings of connectedness that are developed there. Yet, here we are admitting that we have failed a large number of our children and young people in this respect and that it is best to pick it all up once a number of them hit prison. This is not only morally indefensible but also incredibly depressing – and costly – for a young and innovative nation.

How long can we tolerate investing resources in our prison system instead of using the same investment to ensure more New Zealanders have, from a young age, mastered the competencies needed for their lives? How can we make sure that education professionals are transforming their practices to deliver these competencies as the focus of the curriculum?

The government spent over $150 million building the Northland Regional Prison at Ngawha. The reason for building the Ngawha prison was so that inmates could be more connected to their families and communities. Few would argue with this logic. In fact, I am interested in going further and talking about directing the resources of our education system toward prisons.

The burning question is why young people need to be sentenced to imprisonment for society to realise how important it is for them to be connected to their families and communities? How come we don’t value education’s role in this in the first place? Investments such as the prison at Ngawha beg the simple question – what would be the impact of $150 million invested in the schools those young men attended?

New Zealand’s prison population peaked last year at an all-time high of 8816 and according to the Corrections Department’s own forecasts, is expected to reach more than 10,314 by 2017. The people who populate our prisons are largely those who could be labelled educationally ‘unsuccessful’ by the time they were 20 years old. According to the previous prison census in 2003, more than 50 per cent of all inmates had no formal qualifications. The link between imprisonment and educational failure is clear.

Perhaps parents and politicians need to understand that this, not the reporting of league tables or standards, is the purpose of our education system. National standards, while necessary and laudable, only tell us where we are and where we need to go, but do not get us there. That requires a sensible, dynamic and relevant curriculum, excellent teaching and quality school leadership.

In addition, New Zealand has some 47,000 children and young people in the compulsory schooling sector alone who demonstrate conduct problems of varying degrees of severity, and while they will not all end up in prison or various youth facilities, it is certain that those who do will mostly come from this group. Although 80 per cent of youth offenders usually only offend as teenagers, some five per cent are what chief Youth Court judge Andrew Becroft calls the “unexploded human time-bombs”.

The research is clear. It shows if you start early there is quite a high chance of ensuring that children and young people are on the right path. And for those who are not, early interventions with specific types of programmes increase the chances of long-term success significantly. It is imperative to know and understand what works and apply it – as quickly as possible.

At the Northland Regional Prison, every prisoner receives a sentence plan, developed after an assessment of their risk, needs and motivation. A prisoner can enrol in any subject or education programme they consider themselves capable of achieving.

Things have been changing in our schools as well. Schools are using the new curriculum to provide learning plans for each student, based on their risks, needs and their motivations. What is fundamental, however, to all programmes, particularly for teenagers, is the nature and quality of the relationships developed between teacher and student and the level of connectedness students feel in their classrooms and schools.

The lessons learned about how to maximise our investment in children and young people relate to the way we model behaviours. These models are applied – as a last resort it would seem – to offenders before the courts.

Andrew Becroft has brought this situation to the public’s attention through his superb advocacy for youth in recent years. Judge Becroft says we can make a difference by making participation in education non-negotiable – increasing participation at school is a key factor in reducing offending. He is a big supporter of local schools and teachers because every young person kept at school is one less potential career criminal.

Perhaps there is another lesson here for schools and policy makers. We could reward schools that develop and operate successful programmes for difficult students and keep them included in education, rather than lauding schools that boast such things as

‘zero tolerance’ policies, which invariably mean handing the problem on to someone

else to solve.

We have a tendency to put young people in jail for longer in New Zealand. The Sensible Sentencing Trust beats a loud drum to make sure we lock up more offenders for longer, despite the plethora of evidence that such responses do not work and never have. Surely the best investment is made in keeping them off the slippery slope years earlier.

We need all New Zealanders to understand the role they – and not just the teachers – play in making sure all of our children – not just some – are successful. Our future moral authority and prosperity depends on it.

Dr John Langley ONZM

Dr John Langley is chief executive officer of Cognition Institute, Auckland. He was previously the inaugural dean of the Faculty of Education at The University of Auckland.