Prison education and training came under the spotlight last week in a critical speech by Ofsted’s FE and skills director Matthew Coffey. But he also made a number of recommendations that have earned him praise from Rod Clark.

A grading of good, or maybe even outstanding, to Matthew Coffey for highlighting the need to improve prison education.

This resonated for me as chief executive of Prisoners Education Trust, a charity that has worked to rehabilitate prisoners through education for almost 25 years.

But there will be huge challenges ahead for implementing a learning culture that meets the needs of all prisoners.

This is a period of unprecedented change in criminal justice affecting a prison system that wrestles with the inherent challenges of an often transient, deeply troubled prisoner population in an age of financial cutbacks. Given that, how far can Ofsted’s specific recommendations go in addressing the problems?

Few prison qualifications carry credibility with employers”

I would like to focus on two of Mr Coffey’s recommendations that are central to the way education is configured within the prison itself; that prison governors should have more responsibility for education provision and for targets to be based on prisoners gaining vocational and employment-related skills at level two and above.

Some would argue that since the start of the current round Offender Learning and Skills Service (Olass) contracts, governors have, in theory, already got the lead on education.

That role is set to become both more complex and important in future. Such clarity of accountability will be essential when 21 new ‘Community Rehabilitation Companies’ manage the transition out of custody and will only be paid if prisoners do not reoffend.

More than 70 prisons will also have their roles re-cast as resettlement prisons for one ‘Contract Package Area’, meaning there needs to be a single point of authority to ensure that delivery from education providers supports that goal, particularly as some will contain two different Olass providers.

If the prison governor does not manage all these players and the process between what happens in custody and its connection through the prison gate, who else should? These are issues we are exploring along with 16 other members of the Prisoner Learning Alliance.

The other recommendation raises an even more fundamental question: what is prison education for?

To give a person the knowledge, skills and motivation to move them away from a life of crime towards a more positive future would be our answer.

For many, the answer is simply employment. Of course this is important, research shows that ex-prisoners with jobs are half as likely to reoffend, but at the moment most people leaving prison haven’t got the skills or training they need to progress.

Few prison qualifications carry credibility with employers and this is one of the reasons our organisation helps prisoners access courses at level two and above.

We fund a wide range of accredited courses in further and higher education via distance learning, but recent changes to the Olass contracts and the introduction of student loans have caused huge disruption for prisoners.

Of most concern, as the future is increasingly moving to an ICT model, is prisoners’ poor access to computers and lack of controlled access to the internet for online courses or e-learning resources as part of a blended learning model.

Without a significant step change in ICT access in prison, progression will become even more difficult.

It is also important to note that employers seek more than technical competence. They expect employees to have the life skills that are needed to equip anyone to return to life as a fully engaged citizen.

Many prisoners may not be able to relate constructively to others and few have self-belief and resilience in the face of likely discrimination from prospective employers when they leave prison.

Therefore without support to gain such basic life skills, we will be turning out prisoners fit for neither employment nor for playing an active role in society.

Rod Clark, chief executive,
Prisoners Education Trust