Providers who deliver adult education and skills training in England’s prisons are expecting their contracts to end next year, but the PLA wants these extended for a year. It is one of a number of proposals put forward by the organisation, as Alexandra Marks explains.

This June, as we prepare to mark the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education Adult Learners’ Week, the PLA, which comprises 23 organisations with expertise in offender learning, hope its vision for the future of prison education will be realised.

Our vision is simple: we want education in prison to deliver the outcomes we all want to see, less crime and better, more productive lives for prisoners and ex-prisoners.

We invite the new government to achieve this by making some key changes to the current Offender Learning and Skills Service (Olass) contracts this summer. Overhauling the system completely would be expensive and disruptive for staff and learners.

So we recommend that the current contracts are extended for a further year. But we want Ministers to make some important improvements, as set out in our briefing The Future of Prison Education Contracts.

Our eight recommendations offer ways to enrich the curriculum by increasing partnership working with the voluntary sector; to support prisoners to realise their potential and progress with further and higher education; to innovate through technology; and to improve the quality of teaching.

We welcome the increased numbers of learners achieving basic English and maths qualifications.

FE leaders, managers and teachers working in prisons do an extremely important but difficult job with limited resources

However, more flexibility in the Olass contracts would encourage prisoners to progress to higher levels and would lend a greater focus on provision that leads to longer-term rehabilitation outcomes. For example, many prisoners have negative associations with learning; approximately half of prisoners have no qualifications and 42 per cent were excluded from school.

To reach out to such prisoners, many of whom who don’t currently engage in education, non-accredited courses in the arts, social development and informal learning not only ‘hook’ people in, but develop attitudes and thinking skills that can help them manage behaviour, desist from crime and gain employment.

Our solutions are geared towards making prisoners less likely to reoffend. They are based on our members’ collective experiences of the current system and consultation with prison staff and the four providers delivering Olass education in prisons (Weston College, The Manchester College, Milton Keynes College and A4e). We have also listened to education managers, teachers and, most importantly, learners themselves.

FE leaders, managers and teachers working in prisons do an extremely important but difficult job with limited resources.

With improved access to digital technologies, teaching resources and continuing professional development, prison education departments could more closely resemble colleges in the community.

PLA is also focused on ways we can help develop education staff and enable them to network with each other. Our member, The Education and Training Foundation, works to support the sector by offering resources on its Excellence Gateway online hub (http://offender-learning.excellencegateway.org.uk/).

How far is education currently supporting prisoners’ rehabilitation? We know it has the potential to do so. People with qualifications are 15 per cent less likely to commit crime after leaving prison.

However the current system is not doing enough: 58 per cent of prisons inspected in 2013/14 were judged by Ofsted as ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ for learning and skills provision.

None was ‘outstanding’. However, there are positive signs of change on the horizon. In December 2014 education provision at women’s prison HMP Askham Grange, run by The Manchester College, received an ‘outstanding’ grade.

It was soon followed in January 2015 by the education at HMP Hollesley Bay, run by A4e. The inspections reveal that what sets these prisons apart is strong leadership, a positive learning culture across the prison, and an ambition for prisoners to succeed in turning their lives around through education.

We believe other prisons can follow their lead with greater flexibility from the contracts. We urge Ministers to take on board our eight solutions to achieve this aim, and we invite our colleagues in the sector to work with us to keep striving for excellence.