Prison education has been sidelined for too long and major change is needed now, says Rob Mills

The general election brought us our third justice secretary in under two years. And with Dame Sally Coates’ report into prison education now a year old, the white paper on prison safety and reform not fully implemented, and the government’s commitment to prison reform, which was given prominence in 2016, omitted from the Queen’s speech, the sector has been left high and dry. 

Two recent reports have, moreover, branded prisoner resettlement services as next to useless. So what will the new secretary of state do now to a rehabilitate a system that is a billion-pound problem?

Of the 94,700 prisoners in education in 2016, 47 per cent had no formal qualifications. Over 72,000 were assessed for English and maths, with 43 per cent found to be working at or below entry level three in English, and 58 per cent at that level in maths. Of the 75,000 prisoners released that year, 75 per cent moved into unemployment and 46 per cent were reconvicted after 12 months. The total yearly cost of reoffending to the tax payer is some £15 billion.

There is a clear absence of a single point of responsibility and accountability

Spending on prison education totaled some £280 million between 2009-2014, but just £131 million has been earmarked for 2014-2020. Since the money spent so far has not resulted in a substantial decline of reoffending rates, a fundamental change needs to occur in terms of the structure and delivery of education, training, skills and employment services in prisons.

Prisoners enter a system where the landscape of education and employment support is fragmented, and good practice is patchy and inconsistent. The problem with employment support is one of coordination. Over the course of a prisoner’s sentence, multiple agencies and individuals are responsible for helping them find work on release, and there is a clear absence of a single point of responsibility and accountability for this, which creates confusion for both prisoners and service providers. 

Community rehabilitation companies, which should engage with prisoners on release to find employment, are failing. In a damning report released last month into the ‘Through the Gate’ resettlement services run by these companies, the HM Inspectorate wrote: “We did not see any cases where Through the Gate services had assisted a prisoner to get employment after release.”

Employment outcomes should be effectively recorded to provide an accurate picture of the value of the programmes being delivered. At present, there is little robust, comprehensive data available that can trace positive outcomes to interventions. 

These are what I believe to be some of the most important steps that need taking.

We need a clear ‘employment pathway’, and to eliminate the duplication and fragmentation of employment services. There should be a single point of contact responsible to coordinate prisoners’ journeys upon entry, through education and skills, moving towards rehabilitation. 

Employment outcome data should be captured at each opportunity so that the effectiveness of a learner’s programme can be evaluated and where necessary, improvements can be made. Employers should be actively encouraged to support the development of employability skills programmes and to provide training within prisons – thereby encouraging them to employ or at least invite for interview prisoners on release.

The approved list of qualifications funded by SFA also needs to be removed, allowing governors and service providers to determine the qualifications and skills best suited to their prison, linked to local labour market demand.  

Employability skills are often too narrowly identified with learning skills, with too much emphasis on CV-writing, literacy and numeracy. True employability skills should encompass the development of confidence, self-belief, resilience and the ability to work with others – skills that are much more valued by employers in helping to secure sustainable careers in an increasingly competitive employment market.

 

Rob Mills is a leading expert in the Justice sector and an Associate Senior Specialist Education Advisor of the Shropshire Academy & Learning Trust