The prison education reforms announced by Michael Gove are to be welcomed, says Nina Champion, but more investment is needed to ensure governors have enough staff to make them work.
As a committed advocate for progress in prison education, my feelings over the last fortnight have veered between elation and frustration.
I was delighted to hear, on May 18, that the government had accepted all aspects of the review into prison education led by Dame Sally Coates.
Key recommendations included prison governors being held to account for the educational progress of the people in their custody, professional development for all staff, and a more personalised approach to learning for all prisoners.
I sincerely hope the latest reforms are reality and not just rhetoric
Dame Sally stressed the need to raise aspiration and help learners achieve higher-level qualifications, something that the Prisoners’ Education Trust, as a provider of distance-learning courses up to degree level, is very much in favour of.
Two recommendations in particular have sparked controversy.
Dame Sally called to extend the use of technology, which she presented as crucial to deliver high-quality education.
She also advocated increasing the use of day release to allow prisoners to attend college or work placements.
This resulted in news coverage about giving “lags” “treats”, in the form of iPads or “weekend jail”.
In the not-so-distant past, headlines like this would have had politicians quickly backtracking and promising tougher regimes.
But so far justice secretary Michael Gove, who commissioned the report, has stressed his commitment to even its most controversial aspects.
In principle, the Coates Report represents the sort of radical rethink that we so desperately need. Its suggestions are in line with the sector’s experts’.
But it is easy to get carried away with political promises and forget the reality of a prison system under serious strain.
This truth was brought home to me last week, when a colleague, corresponding with a staff member at a prison, was told that due to officer shortages and an overtime ban, the education department at her prison was to close for two weeks. Disastrously, this will fall over exam period.
This means the men won’t have the opportunity to obtain the qualifications they have worked hard to achieve.
The teachers who have engaged and supported them will also be sad to see their efforts come to nothing.
The cost of supplying the course is wasted. The men in this prison now have no choice now but to sit locked in their cells all day rather than doing something positive to show their families, and themselves, that they can achieve something positive and move forward in their lives.
And that prison isn’t alone. John Attard at the Prison Governor’s Association has said that although he sees the “potential” of Dame Sally’s review, it represented a “missed opportunity” to recognise the enormous strains on the system today.
The report suggests training officers to teach basic skills, but when there aren’t enough officers to even escort prisoners to an exam room, expanding their remit is, in Attard’s words, “highly aspirational”.
It is harder than ever for governors to keep staff and prisoners safe and promote a culture of respect and humane treatment, let alone a culture of learning and rehabilitation.
Michael Gove’s recent commitment of £10m to improve security is welcome, but with so much money having been taken out of the prison system in the last few years, this represents a sticking plaster on a serious wound.
There must be a more fundamental solution to the mismatch between the resources available and the sheer numbers of people occupying our jails.
For prisoners who are unable to sit their exams this summer, and for prisoners and staff across the estate who are being routinely failed by the system, I sincerely hope the latest reforms are reality and not just rhetoric.