Here are 5 ways ministers can improve prison education now

26 Mar 2022, 6:00

Yet another review has found that prison education fails learners at every stage. Action must be taken straight away, writes Francesca Cooney

The challenges of teaching people in prison to read reflect the challenges facing prison education as a whole.

Prison education is not organised in a way that supports people to improve their reading – and the Ofsted and HM Inspectorate of Prisons joint review of reading education in prisons describes a system failing learners at each stage of the process.

The findings are concerning, but not surprising. Prisons have been in crisis for years: underfunded, understaffed and overcrowded. This impacts on education delivery daily, with not enough officers to take people to classes, or to supervise activities.

Prisons have been slow to recover from lockdown. Although English courses could have been made available, education leaders have not always made this happen.

Education leaders have not always made English courses available

In most prisons, fewer than 30 prisoners were enrolled in any form of English education, which is a very small proportion of the prisoners who need reading support.

So, what needs to happen now? A strategic approach to education in prisons is long overdue, with a focus on equivalent provision to the community.

This should be part of the government’s “levelling up” agenda. But the promises in the prison strategy white paper remain vague and change is urgently needed.

The solutions are not all straightforward, but the Prisoners’ Education Trust has five suggestions that would lead to improvements.

1. Prison education contracts need more funding, and more flexibility

The current contracts are universally unpopular, being too bureaucratic and requiring intensive monitoring. They are too focused on qualifications and attendance, rather than teaching and learning.

Funding for prison education has remained static for many years and is way below levels for adult education in the community.

Without a significant increase in resources, and new commissioning arrangements, the picture will not improve and people will continue to leave prison unable to read.

2. The assessment process is ineffective

It is not dynamic, not detailed, and too focused on form-filling. Education staff do not have the capacity to interact with new learners and to take time to find out what their needs are.

This means that education teams are not assessing learners accurately and not really understanding their learning needs and skills gaps.

In addition, learners are not always allocated to the right-level class. Lack of space and lack of money mean that classes might not be available in all levels.

Ofsted found that provision of entry-level classes was particularly poor. 

3. Prison libraries are undervalued and underused

People in prison are supposed to be able to access a library regularly but following lockdown prison libraries have been slow to reopen and hours are reduced. Opening at weekends or in the evening is very rare.

Sometimes education sessions clash with library opening times, and library stock does not always support the courses put on by the education department.

Teachers told Ofsted that staffing shortages caused by the pandemic made escorting prisoners to the library even more difficult.

4. Teachers need more support and training

Ofsted found that the curriculum was not well designed and didn’t focus enough on improving reading.

Teachers sometimes did not know how to teach adults to read or which resources would be appropriate to teach phonics and early reading.

Some resources used were unsuitable for adults and some teachers gave written resources to learners who could not read well enough to use them.

5. Additional learning support is essential

The report finds that prisoners with the greatest need generally received the least support.

ESOL classes are not always available and additional learning needs are not always identified.

People who cannot read at all need face-to-face teaching, because they are unable to make improvements on their own.

However, Ofsted found that through the pandemic and beyond, there has often been no one available to offer help and support to prisoners who cannot read.

If people leave prison unable to read, then we have missed a key chance to help them get a job and turn their lives around.

Prisons, and the Ministry of Justice, must urgently ensure that every prisoner gets a high-quality education that meets their specific needs.



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  1. Steve Rogers

    Prison educators worked non-stop throughout the pandemic. The majority had to adapt quickly to a new way of working and from home, creating in-cell packs for most subjects available. There was never any support from HMPPS or Ofsted during this period and every piece of work produced was heavily scrutinised which caused a lot of anxiety and stress. Until the MoJ pulls its finger out, invests in education, the culture changes and all prison staff understand the importance and value of offender learning. I’m afraid little if anything will ever change within prisons. Prison leaders focus on the wrong things. To level up, the MoJ need to stop dragging their heels.