While prison reform is to be welcomed, simply dealing with the staff shortages would solve many of the barriers to learning, says Sally Alexander.
Prison reform has been a hot topic of conversation since Michael Gove was appointed as justice minister back in May 2015. With his sudden exit earlier this year, the sector has been waiting to see how Liz Truss would take forward Dame Sally Coates’ review of prison education, commissioned by Gove, as well as the wider and much needed overhaul of prisons. So the publication of the new white paper was welcomed.
It is key to note that this is a white paper on prison safety and reform, not just reform, and rightly so. Having worked with learners in custody for 25 years, I am well aware of the increase in violence and disruptions to our prison regimes over recent years and as Liz Truss says: “Without safety there can be no reform.”
Liz Truss has committed to raising standards through four purposes that prisons need to deliver well: public protection; safety and order; reforming offenders; and preparing prisoners for life outside prison. These are to be welcomed and I am pleased to see the last two highlighted and not lost in the vital need to improve safety.
Reading more closely into plans for reforming education for offenders, it becomes more interesting.
Governors are given commissioning responsibilities for learning in their prisons, which is absolutely right: they should have both the autonomy and the accountability.
Staff shortages have resulted in whole regimes being cancelled
Assessing all learners’ education needs on entry already happens across the estate, but I welcome the plan to link this formally to prison sentence plans, thereby raising the importance of and focus on this valuable piece of work.
The value of introducing a core common curriculum is less clear, as this seems to go against giving governors flexibility and autonomy to do what they feel best meets the needs of their prisoners. The jury is still out on this one.
I applaud governors working with local employers and linking learning programmes to labour market information. However this does already happen in a number of establishments – in fact, we deliver a range of employer-centred programmes, placing over 100 offenders into work on release in the last year.
The challenge to all organisations working with prisoners, to offer opportunities for prisoners on release, is a good one. We work in a mentoring or support capacity with a number of ex-offenders who have set up their own companies and their expertise and experience is invaluable.
The focus on reform and preparation for life on release is welcome. However, some of this reform is already taking place and it is only not happening more widely due to cancelled or curtailed regimes caused by the staff shortages outlined in the white paper.
These shortages, as well as giving rise to safety concerns, have resulted in prisoners not being able to attend learning, learning being curtailed as they arrive late and leave early, or whole regimes being cancelled.
This is demotivating for learners and staff. Prisoners in custody mostly want to succeed and turn their lives around. Yes, they can be challenging, but most want to engage. And if they are engaging with learning, they are far less likely to be violent and disruptive.
As Paul, a learner working with RMF, one of our construction employers, recently said: “Once in education, life became positive. I started at college, developed skills and worked on site on day-release.
“I completed my qualifications and on release continued in the same job. I got on a course and I got a job”.
Paul is now a supervisor at this company.
I welcome Liz Truss’ plans to make prisons safer and to make them places of reform. Most of all, I hope they will enable the good programmes that are already in place in our prisons to be delivered, get prisoners out of their cells and into activities, and support offenders to resettle on release and not return to prison.
Sally Alexander is executive director of offender learning at Milton Keynes College