Prison education: Too many reviews, too little action

18 Sep 2021, 6:00


Let prisoners have a say in changes to prison education too, writes Jon Collins

Prison education has suffered more during the pandemic than education in the community.

Prison lockdowns and a lack of access to digital technology have led to an almost complete hiatus that is only now beginning to ease. 

The new year-long review by Ofsted and HM Inspectorate of Prisons into prison education will be an opportunity to take stock.

It can explore how, as prisons recover from the pandemic, the education provided can better meet the needs of all prisoners.

This is not, however, the first review of prison education, even in recent years. 

In 2016 a major government-commissioned review by Dame Sally Coates was published.

It set out proposals for radical change, intended to put education at the heart of the prison system. This review led to some limited changes, but not the overhaul that was anticipated.

That was the latest in a litany of reports and inquiries on prison education in this country. But real and significant change has been rare. 

Until the early 1990s, prison education was funded by the Home Office and delivered under contract by mainstream local providers. This localised system gave prison governors significant discretion. 

Then in 1992 external providers bid for contracts to deliver education in groups of prisons across a wider geographical area. Local flexibility had been traded for consistency.

To a large extent, structurally this is the approach that remains in place today.

In 2001, responsibility for prison education was transferred to the-then Department for Education and Skills, a move intended to shift prison education into the educational mainstream. 

But following the publication of the Coates review this was reversed, moving responsibility for prison education back to the Ministry of Justice. 

This was intended to enable the implementation of Coates’s recommendations, which had governor autonomy at their heart. 

But, in fact, the four providers who in 2019 won contracts to deliver education in the 117 adult prisons in England and Wales under the new Prison Education Framework were the same four providers who had held the previous contracts.

They are committed to prison education and improvements have been made. But prison education is still not good enough.

So what changes are needed?

First, more resources are required, both for education provision and for prisons generally. 

Good-quality education in an environment as challenging as a prison cannot be provided on a shoestring. Meanwhile, education provision will inevitably suffer if there aren’t enough prison officers to bring learners from their cell to the classroom.

More money is not, however, enough. Leadership is also key. Prison governors must prioritise education, not just in classrooms, but across their whole prison.

More money is not enough. Leadership is also key 

If they demonstrate that education is a priority to them, its provision will be seen as a priority by staff throughout the prison.

A broader, more varied offer is also needed. At present most mainstream education in prison covers basic literacy, numeracy and IT skills. This is necessary for many prisoners, but is simply not enough. 

GCSEs and A-levels should be made routinely available, as should a broad range of vocational and other educational opportunities.

To help deliver this, prisons need to move out of the digital dark ages. 

In-cell technology and internet access must become the norm. This must complement, and not replace, face-to-face teaching. 

Finally, this review and any ensuing reforms must draw on the expertise of former and current prison learners. 

Prisons need to move out of the digital dark ages

The input of people with lived experience of prisons is vital for ensuring that any changes are informed by those who understand the system best.

Prison education is currently too limited, too cumbersome in its delivery, and often not of sufficient quality. 

We need to put this right if we want a justice system that genuinely helps people to turn their lives around.

This review is another opportunity to set out a proper roadmap for much-needed reform – officials must make sure it doesn’t become another dead end.

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