Justice Secretary Michael Gove’s wide-ranging review of prison learning is set to include the system of provider contracting. Alexandra takes a closer look at the current system and what she thinks is needed of the review.

This term, prison education is high up on the political agenda. Following a rousing speech prioritising learning for prisoners in July, Justice Secretary Michael Gove returned from recess to launch a review of prison education to be led by Dame Sally Coates.

Days after this announcement, Mr Gove addressed staff from the FE colleges and organisations delivering education in prisons via an exclusive video message at a conference organised by the Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA) on Friday, September 11.

He said: “I don’t think there is anything more important than making sure that when we have people in our care, in custody, that we give them an opportunity to change their lives for the better and nothing is more central to that act of rehabilitation or redemption than education…Having visited prisons and seen the impact that education can have on offenders, one of the best ways of providing people who’ve perhaps made wrong choices in the past with the right path in the future is high quality education… This is an opportunity to transform education for the better and to give thousands of individuals for whom we’re responsible a new start in life.”

The PLA welcomes this timely review of education in prisons. We have long called for improvements to be made to the current system, which operates under the Offender Learning and Skills Service (Olass 4) contracts.

Our vision and solutions are summarised in our reports ‘Smart Rehabilitation’ and ‘The Future of Prison Education Contracts’.

While there is a strong focus on Functional Skills in prisons which is necessary for many prisoners (47 per cent of prisoners have no formal qualifications), we argue there should also be opportunities for learners to progress beyond level two qualifications.

In addition to the Olass delivery, there are also many organisations across the country offering a diverse array of learning opportunities for prisoners, including further and higher education, arts and personal and social development, family learning and peer to peer literacy support.

And these organisations are achieving results. For example, in the latest government Justice Data Lab report, analysis of almost 6,000 prisoners who studied distance learning courses funded by Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) found them more than a quarter less likely to reoffend compared with a matched control group. This includes accredited courses such as GCSEs, NVQs, A-levels and degree modules, in subjects ranging from academia to the arts. Prison education contracts could encourage providers to make much more use of the expertise the voluntary and community sector offers.

PET, which set up and provides secretariat for the PLA, aims to highlight the evidence of what works to reduce reoffending. PET’s chief executive, Rod Clark, will represent our 23 member organisations on an expert panel supporting the Coates Review.

The PLA believes it essential that the providers — Milton Keynes College, The Manchester College, Weston College and PeoplePlus (formerly A4e) — which currently deliver the Olass contracts also feed into the Review. Their staff are on the frontline of delivery, and their views are crucially important.

That is why our conference included an interactive session to initiate a Theory of Change for the sector, asking the critical question — what is prison education for? The day closed with a ‘Wordle’ highlighting key responses from our audience, and ‘confidence’ came out as the chief benefit of delivering prison education.

Throughout the event, we included contributions from current and former prison learners.

Their main ask was for more former prisoners who have made a success of their lives to be allowed to go back into prison to be role models. The other central message from learners was that the focus of prison education should be as a tool for empowerment, agency, self-awareness, empathy and developing a new identity away from that of ‘offender’. We would urge the Coates Review to offer learners meaningful opportunities to be involved in the process.