Five ways to create a prison education system for the 21st century

20 May 2022, 6:00

The education select committee is making the right noises around prison education, but these recommendations are important, writes Peter Cox

Since Robert Halfon became skills minister back in 2016, “ladder of opportunity” has become his catchphrase.

It even makes an appearance in the title of the committee’s report on prison education published on Tuesday. The phrase represents the importance of offering individuals a means of improving their lives through education.

Nowhere is this more important than in prisons. All too often, prisoners find themselves at the bottom of the ladder, with many having endured a poor or limited prior experience of education.

According to the most recent Ministry of Justice (MoJ) data, 57 per cent of adult prisoners had literacy levels below those expected of an 11-year-old when they were assessed at the start of their sentences.

Without qualifications or work experience, prisoners are less likely to find employment – and are more likely to reoffend.

Finding a job can reduce the chance of reoffending by up to nine percentage points. At Novus, we are already active in engaging with employers such as Greene King, Kier and the Pret Foundation to offer routes through to sustainable employment.

In the past 12 months we have supported more than 1,400 prisoners into employment, education or training upon their release.

But there is more we could be doing. The report exposes a host of structural, financial and cultural obstacles that currently prevent prison education from achieving the biggest possible impact.

Here are five recommendations which we believe are key to creating a prison education service fit for the 21st century.

1. Raise the profile and status of education

Ensuring that the pay prisoners receive for taking part in education is equal to the pay they receive for prison work would ensure that no one loses out by choosing education.

Also worth noting is the recommendation that each prison should hire a deputy governor of learning who is directly responsible for education audits and outcomes – an effective means of ensuring all prisons take education seriously.

2. Better data – better sharing

Enabling prisoner data to be shared more easily would allow for better coordination between education, health and offender management teams, as well as allowing prisons to access prior educational attainment.

A “digital education passport” would follow prisoners through their sentence and across the prison estate – and even be shown to potential employers.

Just as important is the recommendation for a longitudinal study of prisoner destination data, comparing the outcomes of those who have received prison education with those who have not.

3. Clearer accountability

At present, reports by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons feature a single grade for all aspects of a prison’s performance, with no separate grade for the education provider. This means that there is no clear line of accountability in the same way as a school or a college.

The committee is right to call for this change: it is only right that providers should be publicly accountable for their performance.

4. Better digital access

Much of the prison estate consists of Victorian buildings which are not set up for high-speed broadband access.

Novus has already invested £12.8 million in upgrading IT infrastructure across 43 prisons, but more needs to be done.

A clear timescale for installing broadband across the prison estate is long overdue. And offering in-cell access for education has the potential to be a game changer.

5. Providing adequate funding

“Prison education is in a perilous state due to a continual decline in funding”, the report baldly states.

Novus’s own analysis suggests that the hourly, per-prisoner funding rate for education equates to just 17 per cent of that for adult education in the community.

Expecting providers to deliver more with less is not sustainable.

The report’s call for a ten-year budget for prison education would give providers the data and confidence they need to deliver the quality of education provision that prisoners deserve – and finally allow us to help more people start to climb the ladder of opportunity.

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