The spotlight of Ofsted attention shone for the first time on prison education with the watchdog’s latest annual report — and it didn’t make for positive reading. Alexandra Marks looks at what’s going wrong behind locked doors.

It was a challenging year for prison education that saw the new Offender Learning and Skills Service contract (OLASS 4) affect key skills, arts and distance learning.

Regime changes within many prisons in 2013 also caused many prisoners to spend less time doing activities, and the government announced proposals for new types of institutions such as resettlement and super prisons.

In its annual speech, Ofsted cast its eye over prison education for the first time. Matthew Coffey, the education watchdog’s director of FE and skills, said that only 35 per cent of prison education departments were judged to be “good”, which would cause a “national outcry” had the figures applied to schools.

After prison inspection results showed that the quality and quantity of purposeful activity in prisons was the worst for six years, Ofsted’s annual report, revealed that prison learning came bottom in the whole FE sector.

Accountability for the quality of learning provision is weak, but can be addressed by greater leadership from prison governors and senior staff

Is that surprising, you might think? After all, why should prisoners receive a standard of learning better or equivalent to that in the community?

The answer is that this issue affects us all. Reoffending rates are currently 58.5 per cent for people serving sentences of less than a year, the annual cost of the crime committed by former prisoners is up to £13bn, yet £37,648 per year per prisoner has been spent on their custody. The Chief Inspector of Prisons and the Chief Inspector of Probation said only last month that efforts to stop reoffending are not working.

The Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA), formed by 17 expert member organisations to improve learning in prison. The group was established by the charity Prisoners Education Trust in November 2012 and members include the Black Training and Enterprise Group (BTEG), the Institute for Learning, Prison Radio Association, the Association of Employment and Learning Providers and Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations (OCR).

The PLA’s new report, Smart Rehabilitation, evidences its vision of putting learning at the heart of rehabilitation in prisons, and includes recommendations for achieving it.

Accountability for the quality of learning provision is weak, but can be addressed by greater leadership from prison governors and senior staff to prioritise a wide range of learning, encompassing everything from relationship skills to higher education.

As insufficient numbers of prisoners are actually undertaking any form of education, we would like to see a prison culture that engages people with interesting, personalised and inclusive learning plans.

Once a prisoner begins learning, mechanisms in prison must enable them to progress and achieve their true potential. Communal areas, such as education departments, can be hotspots for tension in a prison and therefore staff must be supported in behaviour management to make classrooms safer for teachers and learners alike.

Beyond this, teachers should be supported to develop professionally. Achieving excellence requires a commitment from prison staff, education providers and volunteers.

We are concerned that the Ministry of Justice’s plans for transforming rehabilitation in 2014 will not work unless prisoners are supported to use their time constructively to develop the attitudes, skills and knowledge that will enable them to play a positive role in society.

Our report offers practical guidance for both prisons and the UK Government’s efforts to become more joined up, ensuring that prisoners have a successful learning journey throughout their time in custody and after release and thus, in turn, reducing reoffending.

Alexandra Marks, Prisoner Learning Alliance chair