Here we Gove again: Now we’re getting academies for prisons

Governors at prisons will get direct power to hire providers for offender learning — as the Justice Secretary Michael Gove looks to replicate the decentralisation agenda he once pushed as Education Secretary.

Offender Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) contracts are currently held by three colleges and one independent learning provider, and appointed by the Skills Funding Agency (SFA).

But under Mr Gove’s new plans, prison governors will be handed responsibility for contracting from July next year, through the upcoming Prison and Courts Reform Bill.

It is not certain, however, that future contracts would only be given to FE providers, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson admitted to FE Week.

The reforms were mentioned in the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday, when she said: “Prison governors will be given unprecedented freedom and they will be able to ensure prisoners receive better education.”

The plan reflects recommendations made in an inquiry by Dame Sally Coates, which was published on Wednesday (May 18).

The transition will be overseen by Mr Gove, whose plans to hand additional powers to prison governors reflect his past efforts to shift decision-making power from local authorities to head teachers, via a massive expansion of academy schools which happened during his time at the Department for Education between 2010 and 2014.

From August 2017, Dame Coates said she would expect that “in line with the wider implementation of prison reform, we will move to all governors having full freedoms over the choice of education providers for their prisons”.

Peter Dawson, the deputy director of the Prison Reform Trust, has said he is looking forward to what he called the “academy solution” for prison learning, in an expert piece for our sister paper FE Week.

He stressed that “the willingness to place more trust in the leader of an institution opens up potential which tight central control does not”.

Dame Coates, a former head teacher, also recommended that current OLASS contracts, which are due to end in July, should be extended for another year to allow time for a phased introduction of the reforms.

The OLASS system was first rolled out across the country in 2006, and the fourth round of contracts were agreed in August 2012.

Manchester College holds them for London, the north-east, north-west, Kent and Sussex, and Yorkshire and Humber.

Barbara McDonough, chief operating officer for Novus, the college’s offender learning service, said:

“Overall we believe this report accurately reflects the challenges the sector is facing, and we welcome the recommendations.”

Milton Keynes College holds contracts in the east Midlands, west Midlands and for south central.

Jason Mansell, the college’s director of offender learning, said: “We believe that governor autonomy for the provision of education, and governor accountability for educational progress of all prisoners within their establishments, is key to driving the prioritisation and improvement of all learning consistently across the prison estate.”

No one was available to comment from Weston College, which holds the OLASS contract for the south-west of England.

People Plus, formerly known as A4E, which holds the contract for the east of England, declined to comment.

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