Ditchling manager goes back to borstal

Sally Wentworth-James in Bring Back Borstal. Photographer: Justin Slee
Sally Wentworth-James in Bring Back Borstal. Photographer: Justin Slee

A Ditchling manager has been stepping back in time to help run a 1930s borstal for real-life young offenders in a TV series.

Sally Wentworth-James appears in a four-part series, Bring Back Borstal, which started last Thursday (January 8) on ITV.

A real-life prisons education manager, Sally designed and taught an educational curriculum for the show based on the materials and methods used more than 80 years ago, while cameras filmed every second of her interaction with the 14 troubled lads who signed up for the punishing regime.

The series was shot over four weeks in an authentically-recreated institution at a castle in Northumberland.

Sally, 51, who is responsible for helping to deliver education and vocational skills to offenders in prisons across London and the East of England through her real-life job with public services provider A4e, swapped her smart office clothes for heavy tweed and stern metal-rimmed spectacles to get into the role.

She said: “I stayed in costume and character all the time. There was no larking about with the lads between scenes. I was always Miss James. I soon forgot the cameras were on and it felt real. These were real lads with real problems and futures to think about.

“This was a genuine experiment, not Big Brother-style entertainment.

“I have never done anything like this before but I was attracted to it because it felt pertinent to what I have seen going on in prisons today, the move towards proper education and rehabilitation.”

The programme aims to explore the impact on today’s young offenders, aged 18 to 23, of Britain’s 1930s borstal regime, based on a busy schedule of ‘physical and purposeful activity’ – will they be able to endure a life without TV, iPhones and Playstations, of strict discipline and tough physical demands?

Sally said: “The concept excited me because there was time being spent on these guys, getting them active, getting them educated, not in a scholarly way but in a way that relates to their real lives, interactive lessons that involve and engage them and take into account their needs.”

She originally applied for the job of matron but the producers didn’t feel she was right for the part – not matronly enough.

Instead, she was offered head of education, one of six professionals in the justice field brought in to run the borstal, guided by Government prison rule books of the time but without any further direction from the production team to make it as realistic as possible.

Sally said: “I was consulted throughout, long before filming, about my experience in prisons and teaching.

“I thought it would all be set up and I would be told what to do but I was given carte blanche to completely design the curriculum and teaching methods, based around four themes for the different episodes. None of it was scripted.

“There were cameras on us for every moment and it felt very authentic.

“Staff and learners responded as they would have in real life.

“I only had a blackboard and chalk, no further teaching aids or resources to keep them engaged so I had to design the classes around that.”

“I had to think very carefully about what might interest them, taking the time to get to know them and find out what made each one tick.”

The offenders had 60 convictions between them and some had been to prison, although Sally did not know anything about them other than their brief educational history and whether any of them had worked before.

Sally said: “What soon became clear was that they were all very bright boys who had been let down by the system. Most had poor educational attainment and concentration.

“I was amazed to find that eight of the 14 had poor eyesight but had never been tested. Perhaps this helped explain why they had not done so well at school.

“They felt they had failed at school, blown their only chance. But I told them I failed at school. I didn’t get my degree until I was 30 and my masters until I was 40. I wasn’t ready until then. It’s never too late to go back into education.”

Although she never felt in danger and never had to call on the real security guards dressed as wardens outside the classroom, there were tense moments where she had to deal with the frustrations and anger of the lads in her care.

She said: “The first week was very tough. It reminded them all of what they hadn’t liked about school. The discipline was tough, they were fighting it. It got a bit heated sometimes.

“I instilled strong boundaries. I told them I would not tolerate swearing and if any of them felt they wanted to kick off, they could ask me politely if they could leave the room. There was no point holding them there against their will or we would get locked in battle instead of engaging.

“They responded well to the boundaries and routine. I didn’t shout at them. If one misbehaved we would work on the problem one–on-one. I made sure there was plenty of time built into the system for that.

“Generally, they showed a great deal of respect. By the end, they were policing themselves. If one swore, he might be told off by another of the lads.

“I told them I would never humiliate them and involved them in the decisions made about how and what they would be taught. They were surprised to be asked and responded well. I treated them like adults and they started to behave more like adults.”

In one lesson, she taught the lads about conciliation through the story of the famous football match played between German and British soldier in the First World War trenches during a Christmas ceasefire.

She also encouraged them to debate subjects close to their hearts, such as whether victims should have a say in sentencing and capital punishment.

She said: “One week I got them to write poems in a confidence and creativity lesson. They were all reluctant so I offered to make a fool of myself and write one too. One of the lads wrote one about the mistakes he had made in his life. It was so powerful, I had goosebumps when he read it.

“I encouraged another to read a book, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, my favourite. Again, he was reluctant. He had been the least engaged of all the lads. But he admitted his Mum named him after a character in it and ended up spending all his spare time reading it in his room. He took it home to finish.

“On the last week, employers came in and interviewed them. First we had to teach them how to do a basic introduction, shake someone’s hand and look them in the eye. They all found that hard because they were not used to such adult social interaction.”

Not all the lads made it through – as they were there on a voluntary basis they could walk at any time.

But Sally was amazed at the transformation in those that did.

She said: “Some of those who finished it have gone into education. One was homeless and is now at a residential college to study an access course and applying for a degree in criminology. Two went on to do business studies and are setting up an enterprise together.

“It shows the value of investing in these guys, giving them focused, flexible education that is realistic about their capabilities, interests and needs.

“I knew we only had four weeks so I didn’t go in there with high expectations of completely changing them. I celebrated each success. If one learner managed to sit in the class for 15 minutes when he had only managed 12 before, I saw that as a success.

“A lot of what I saw resonated with what I see going on in prisons today. “