Skills minister Alex Burghart and prisons minister Victoria Atkins answered questions from the House of Commons education committee this morning as part of its inquiry into prison education.
To date, the cross-party review has explored issues around how education can be embedded across the prison estate, how well prisons accommodate the needs of SEND prisoners and the practicalities of delivering apprenticeships in prisons.
The two ministers, alongside Phil Copple, director general of prisons and Louise Wright, deputy director for apprenticeships, participation and traineeships at the Department for Education, gave updates on the government’s plans.
Here are some key takeaways of the inquiry’s final evidence session:
Ministers still considering apprenticeships in prisons
Burghart told committee members that the government is still considering a scheme to allow prisoners to start apprenticeships in prison and then continue with them once they have been released.
“It’s a very interesting idea and one that we are currently looking into… there are a few things operationally that we need to work through, but we are hopeful that we will be able to find some way through,” he said.
Burghart explained there is currently no primary legislative barrier to prisoners becoming apprentices and so it should be possible – either for a scheme to allow prisoners on to apprenticeships or at least a modified form of an apprenticeship.
This might involve prisoners to go out on day release and take advantage of “existing funding streams”.
However, Burghart said that the DfE had only been doing provisional work on the issue and that no formal commitments had been made.
The government has been considering the question of prisoners doing apprenticeships for the past five years.
Personal learning plans to be piloted
During the session ministers were asked what they were doing to ensure that prisoners have some sort of continuity with their learning in cases where they are moved across the prison estate.
Copple told committee members that the government doesn’t currently have data on the number of prisoners who start courses and then move before they can complete them.
However, Atkins said that the government is piloting personal learning plans for each prisoner in four of their “accelerator” prisons.
“So that will be the model for the future… Having the plans follow the prisoner around the prison estate,” she said.
In terms of when the government is likely to roll out such as scheme, Copple said that they are going to link the evidence from the accelerators into the budget allocation decisions that are being made in the next couple of months. Officials will then use that information as they consider how to roll out provision over the next three years.
Plans for tech in cells moving forward
Last October, the Prisoners’ Education Trust called for a “major investment” into prison connectivity, whereby every prisoner has access to a digital device and the internet in their cell.
In-cell learning and investment into digital infrastructure in prisons was discussed during the session.
Atkins told committee members about a meeting she had with an experienced prison governor and how he was initially sceptical about in-cell tech.
“He was particularly worried about the security aspect and whether the technology would be properly looked after and so on,” she said.
“But he happily admitted he was a complete convert… because it had such good results through his prison.
“It will take a bit of time… but we want to push this forward and use it appropriately and securely, so that when a prisoner has the opportunity in their cell to do some learning, they are seizing that opportunity,” Atkins added.
Prisoners with SEND need more support
Ministers heard concerns that individuals with learning difficulties are not clearly identified in the prison system. And committee members asked what improvements will be made to make sure that prisoners with SEND are properly supported.
“We are recognising that governors need expertise and they need capability to be built in their prisons,” Copple said.
He explained that with the accelerator prisons the government are trialling senior neurodiversity leads to help support prisoners.
Prisons deemed by Ofsted to have an ‘inadequate’ educational offering
The committee heard that the last annual report by Ofsted revealed that only nine of the 32 institutions inspected were judged to be good with the vast majority requiring improvement or were deemed inadequate.
“We absolutely accept those findings, of course we do,” said Atkins.
“It is the very real intent to improve upon those findings that underscores both the spending settlement that we have secured from the treasury but also importantly, the prison strategy white paper.”
Skills minister Burghart told the committee that there are four big providers in prisons, that provide a range of services beyond what they do in prisons. He said that overall Ofsted have found them to be good providers.
“Where the Ofsted inspections of some prisons are not where we would like them to be, it tends to be because of things like curriculum planning or available space,” Burghart said.
“Some of that comes from the fact that we are only in the third year of the Coates review being implemented. I imagine some governors are still finding their feet, but there is already some very good practice out there.”