The Coates review recommended wide-ranging changes to prison education. So how are things progressing? Not as quickly as they should, says Francesca Cooney

Three years ago, the ground-breaking Coates report Unlocking Potential set out a wide-ranging agenda for reforming and improving education in our prisons. This week the Prisoner Learning Alliance, a network of organisations and individuals working for improvements in prison education, is publishing a progress review on its recommendations.

So, how are we doing? Although the proportion of FE colleges judged by Ofsted to be good or outstanding is increasing, the opposite is true in prison education. Over the past year, no prison education provision was judged as outstanding and only four out of ten were good. Ofsted’s message is very clear: urgent action is needed to ensure prisons are helped to improve.

Coates recommended wide-reaching changes and a complete overhaul in funding and management. These changes are now in force. Prison governors have a much bigger input into how education is delivered in their prisons. Over the past two years they have decided what they want from their education provision, and from April this year took on the responsibility to monitor it too.

It is very early days as the contracts have been in place for only a month. But it is hoped that having governor involvement in education will make it a higher priority and better integrated into the prison timetable.

To take just one example. Coates highlighted the needs of prisoners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities (LDD) – highly significant because a third of people entering prison have LDD. New, mandatory contractual requirements mean sentenced prisoners are now screened when they enter prison.

Another positive development is that most prison education departments are now using the same management information system. Therefore, if a prisoner who has been screened for LDD is transferred, staff in the new prison will be able to see the assessment.

A third of people entering prison have LDD

So far, so good. However, the anticipated tool for screening has not yet been nationally approved and individual prisons are using a variety of tools to find out whether people entering their care have LDDs. It is positive that all prisons will be carrying out some sort of screening, but the process needs to be standardised. Without this there is a danger that prisoners will go through different screening assessments each time they move between prisons.

Another benefit is that if a released prisoner returns to prison, the previous assessment will be available. This is important because nearly half (48 per cent) of people leaving prison are reconvicted within a year. This will mean that needs are identified quickly when vulnerable people come back into prison.

The new requirements do not cover all prisoners, though. It is not clear what will happen to longer-term prisoners who may have unidentified needs. It is not yet mandatory that they receive screening. It is also not clear what will happen to those on remand. A prisoner on remand who is engaging with education will be assessed. But, legally, unconvicted people cannot be made to go to work or study – and many don’t. It is up to individual prisons to decide whether they screen all their remand population.
The Coates report recommended that every prison should adopt a whole-prison approach to identifying, supporting and working with prisoners with LDD. While there has been some progress, this is too slow.

The new requirements are a step forward, but substantial numbers of prisoners may still fall through the net. System-wide screening, with a standardised tool, available to all prisoners would be the first step towards achieving the vision Coates set out for prisoners with additional needs.