Prison Education unlocked: The system that’s failing its learners

27 Feb 2024, 6:20

The prison population is estimated to pass 100,000 by 2030. With re-offending rates starting to increase and new prison education contracts out to tender, Jessica Hill and Sophie Carlin explore this hidden world – and find out what needs to change

After prisoners at HMP Warren Hill in Suffolk have been unlocked from their cells, got showered and had breakfast, they wander over to a building with a sign above the door that reads ‘college’.

Mike Hallatt, a teacher there for PeoplePlus (one of four core education providers operating in prisons) smirks at this. 

“Don’t be fooled. It’s all smoke and mirrors,” he says.

The ‘college’ boasts a “huge chapel”, “massive kitchen”, supermarket and medical rooms. But its core education provision is “a tiny office where we’re literally sitting on each other’s laps” and four classrooms – one which Hallatt claims has not been used since courses were “cut back” during Covid, although PeoplePlus says it rotates classrooms. 

HM Inspectorate’s last report on Warren Hill found it “excellent”, with “impressive” educational activities on offer. There are far worse prisons for education. But there’s little choice for prisoners over what to learn, with all core courses being only levels 1 and 2. PeoplePlus says its delivery model is “both inclusive and well established from entry level up to level 2”.

Since one inmate, ‘Tom’ (name changed) was incarcerated seven years ago, he’s completed 42 courses – including three level 2 courses in food safety and preparation. But none will help him achieve his ambition of becoming a mechanic.

Similarly, Josh Betford found all the courses he took while imprisoned at HMP Guys Marsh “too easy, teaching me things I already knew”. 

“It felt like a box-ticking exercise, they even give you the answers half the time. The focus was on people getting maths and English qualifications and maybe forklifting or bricklaying. But being a tradesman isn’t for everyone.”

He wishes he’d been taught “investing or law, something useful”.

Government funding changes have resulted in a 90 per cent drop in prisoners studying level 3 or above courses since 2010, a 2022 House of Commons report found. Hallatt says his learners are “crying out for decent qualifications. They keep asking me, what does an employer want?”

A poem written by a prisoner who is a student of Mike Hallatts

‘Toilet roll’ contracts

After the 2016 Coates Review called for education to be put “at the heart” of the prison system, 11 prison ministers have overseen a decline in both quantity and quality of provision. The number of prisoners doing courses dropped from over 100,000 in 2014/15 to 63,744 in 2022/23. 

While in 2014/15, four per cent of Ofsted judgements for education, skills and work provision were ‘outstanding’, 20 per cent were ‘good’, 60 per cent ‘required improvement’ and 16 per cent were ‘inadequate’. 

By 2022-23, none were ‘outstanding’, nine per cent were ‘good’, 47 per cent ‘required improvement’ and 44 per cent were ‘inadequate’. 

Prisons’ chief inspector Charlie Taylor sees this as “catastrophically bad”. 

“Prison education was nothing to open the champagne about before the pandemic, but it’s got worse.”

Much of the slide in standards is blamed on the Ministry of Justice prioritising value for money in the contracts it signed in 2019 with providers such as Novus (LTE Group), Milton Keynes College, PeoplePlus and Weston College, to provide English, maths, IT and ESOL classes. (Prisons buy in other education activities under a separate system.)

The University and College Union (UCU) prisons official, Paul Bridge, claims these contracts introduced “a greater layer of administration” and that the “purpose of education has been lost”.

“Educators are tasked with managing the regime, instead of delivering a broader-based educational experience. There is gaming and perverse incentivisation… it’s pretty fundamentally flawed.”

UCU prison education chairperson Brian Hamilton says the “very binary” contracts treat education “like they’re buying toilet roll”. But education can make a “measurable” difference because ex-prisoners are “contributing to society if they don’t re-offend”.

Prisoners are nine per cent less likely to re-offend if they’ve engaged in prison education, research shows. The re-offending rate fell from 31 per cent in 2010 to 24 per cent in 2021, but rose to 25.5 per cent in the first quarter of 2022.

Narrowing the curriculum

UCU rep Paul Bridge

The MoJ’s ambition through the 2019 contracts was that “every prisoner can finish their sentence with a basic level of English and maths”. But its focus cut off the opportunity for many prisoners to learn what interests them.

Pierre Reid, 33, found during his seven years in prison that “still having to go through basic maths and English offends a lot of prisoners and makes them shy away from education”. 

He took a range of courses, all at levels one and two, apart from a peer mentoring course which he credits with helping him change his ways. Reid, who just got a job at Domino’s, wishes he could have learnt “physics, or astronomy [as I have] interests in that”.

While the level one and two classes are unchallenging for some, more than half of prisoners are believed to be functionally illiterate and there are few courses available for them either.

Hallatt says some of his learners “can’t read or write, and are thrown on courses they clearly shouldn’t be on. They do the courses anyway, just to keep employed… for the money, not anything else.”

Prisoners are paid to attend classes – £13.50 a week at HMP Warren Hill – which Hallatt says is usually spent on vapes and phone credit. Some jails pay inmates less for attending education than work activities, although Taylor believes more governors are now “evening out” the pay differential. 

Hallatt estimates that only an hour of his six hours a day of classes is spent teaching, with prisoners socialising for much of the time.

“They talk about nothing more than going home and their parole hearings … it’s fascinating. We don’t stop them.” Similarly, Taylor finds when visiting classrooms that prisoners “often seem to spend more time sitting around chatting” than learning.  

But not all prison education is poor.

Taylor says category D (open prisons) inspections have been “slightly better” in the last year. A recent report on HMP Ford found an “impressive” construction school set up with Chichester College Group.

But most prisons are category C, designated ‘training and resettlement’ prisons, locations where provision is “most concerning”.

Officer shortages

Former prisoner Pierre Reid

Prison education never fully recovered from Covid, with “far too many prisons continuing to operate greatly reduced regimes”, Taylor says.

Of the 51 prison education provider contracts assessed for quality by the MoJ, two-thirds (34) went unrated between October and December 2022 because classroom-based delivery was “significantly restricted” due to “safe systems of work”.

A recent Inspectorate report blamed reduced activity on “insufficient” prison officer numbers, “poor delivery by prison education providers”, “industrial relations” and “overcrowding”.

While the number of prison officers rose by three per cent between 2022-2023, the prisoner population increased by seven per cent. Long-term sickness among officers is on the rise, with average days lost rising from 10 to 14 between 2018 and 2023.

HMP Bedford’s recent inspection report said high levels of long-term sickness was “affecting the delivery of many core services”. Leaders “frequently shut down” education services and the library. 

Covid also led to education being provided on the wings, instead of classrooms. 

Bridge says this “transition from the talk and chalk approach to developing bespoke packages for learners in their cells” was a “light bulb moment” for some governors, as it could “save money and control prisoners by keeping them locked up”.

Bridge sees it as “inherently unsafe” for educators, with UCU in “proactive discussions” over the issue. 

Providers lose out financially when classes don’t take place. 

Across five prisons in the first quarter of 2023/24, 18 per cent of planned learner places were lost for operational reasons including prison officer shortages. Only five per cent were lost due to lack of teachers. Across the four publicly run prisons, this represented 1,892.5 education hours lost and £35,197 recoverable from providers.

The MoJ says new performance measures on attendance and learner progress will increase the “priority” of education for prison governors.

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “We know how important education is in helping offenders gain the skills they need to turn their backs on crime. That’s why we launched our Prisoner Education Service and are holding governors to greater account for performance, while rolling out more specialist staff, technology and hardware.

“Our approach is working – with the percentage of prisons rated ‘good’ by Ofsted increasing significantly over the last year.”

But FE Week found that of the last ten inspection reports (since November 2023) Ofsted rated eight ‘inadequate’ (for education, skills and work) and two ‘required improvement’.

The Shannon Trust working with mentors and mentees in prison to help people read inside HMP Featherstone Wolverhampton UK

Retention woes

Bridge believes that prisoners being “banged up for longer” is leading to “more frustration and increasing violence”.

His reps in the Midlands report rising sexual harassment, and UCU’s “more experienced members” are “concerned about how we’re trained and supported”. 

“Younger, less experienced educators don’t have jail craft. They’re not quite aware that some prisoners are well versed in forms of subconscious behavioural control.”  

Hallatt sometimes feels “unsafe” in classes, “particularly in the kitchen” among carving knives. 

The report into Five Wells, where Weston College is currently advertising seven vacancies, said its head of education “raised serious concerns” about his staff’s “safety”. Taylor has found there are “not enough” teachers to run workshops in “many prisons”.

However, David McBride, education manager for Novus at HMP Isis says his jail is “nearly fully staffed” and “doing really well with retention and recruitment, as are Novus”. The provider is currently advertising 47 vacancies across 50 prisons.

What’s changing?

Many blame problems on education funding in prisons staying the same (around £129 million a year) since 2015, representing a real terms drop of eight per cent between 2019 and 2022. 

Another £30 million a year is believed to be spent on contract management. The funding rate for the male prison population is less than a fifth of the rate for students in community-based adult education, analysis by Novus suggested.

The government is not expected to increase funding substantially when new contracts kick in next year. It’s Future Skills programme, launched last year, was intended to provide training in 30 prisons but is only running in 23. 

And 12 contracts were published last week for HMP Academies employer-led work programmes, which was intended for 17 prisons. The programmes’ emphasis is on work rather than training, with contracts stating that “the scope, content and pace of learning” is at the employer’s discretion.

A joint DfE/MoJ prisoner apprenticeship scheme launched in 2022 was expected to include up to 300 apprentices by 2025, but so far fewer than ten prisoners have enlisted.

To improve quality, the prison service will be able to claw back up to 10 per cent of funding if providers have not met their targets under the new contracts. Currently, the clawback mechanism’s focus is on service levels rather than quality. Providers will continue to be financially penalised when classes cannot take place due to prison officer shortages.

Last year, heads of education, skills and work and neurodiversity support managers were introduced to over 100 prisons to improve support for prisoners with additional learning needs.

But Hamilton says “you could employ a lot of teachers with that money. These people don’t deliver education, but make others jump through hoops to fulfil contracts”.

Jon Collins, chief executive of the Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) believes there “needed to be a reset” through new contracts as “there’s a general view that the current set haven’t quite delivered what people hoped”.

But the new model is not substantially different to the current one.

FE Week understands that Weston College, which currently provides education in 19 prisons, is not bidding for lots in these contracts. It did not respond to a request for comment. 

Population growth impact

Prisons minister Edward Argar

Overcrowding could make it even harder for educators to operate in jails. Longer sentencing saw prison populations rise over five per cent to 87,936 in the year to February, with numbers expected to pass 100,000 by 2030. 

“The rate at which new prison places are being created is not keeping pace,” says Taylor. “It’s far tighter than it should be, which makes things very risky. There’s a danger we’ll hit an absolute crisis point in the future.”

Reid recalls how at one prison, “education fell to the wayside” because “they were overwhelmed with prisoners. It just becomes about keeping everyone alive.”

As a solution to overcrowding, the government is seeking to rent prison space from other countries. Collins warns this would make prison education “very difficult and expensive” to deliver. 

There are also concerns about the poor state of some education facilities. Milton Keynes College tutors report “rotting walls and doors, mould, leaking roofs requiring buckets, and lack of adequate heating”, while prison observer Danny Barrs describes “classrooms where windows were broken” and “disgusting toilets”.

Digital divide

HM chief inspector of prisons Charlie Taylor

Charlie Atkinson, training manager at the Dusty Knuckle, a London bakery employing former prisoners, recalls one trainee who never made it to work due to his lack of digital awareness. 

“He saw somebody tapping on their Apple Watch and thought he was hallucinating. He’d never seen an Oyster card before.”

Atkinson has been asked to “help ex-offenders learn to use Argos self-checkout machines”, because upon their release the probation service gave them vouchers “to buy a tent and sleeping bag”. Her insights highlight how fast the digital world is moving, and how painfully slow the MoJ is to catch up. 

In-cell technology is only so far available in 15 prisons, with four more planned by March 2025. As a separate pilot, 1,500 education-specific offline laptops have been deployed across 35 prisons. 

Prisoners can access some online learning materials on education departments’ computers using the intranet programme Virtual Campus. But digital skills courses are “pretty limited”, says Collins. 

Hallatt teaches an essential digital skills course that “states quite clearly learners must have internet usage”.

Without it, teachers must design offline resources on how to send emails, so learners “pretend” to send them. Inmates are then “very strictly monitored” to go online in a ten-minute window during exams.

Igniting the learning spark

Sharon Berry chief executive of Storybook Dads

PET provides 130 distance learning courses to prisoners, including in bookkeeping, running a business, and even beekeeping (for prisons with beehives). Last year, it received around 2,500 applications and funded 1,300 courses.

Collins says their courses help with wellbeing, and they “try to offer things people will find interesting rather than just what’s good for job prospects”.

Some partnerships have begun bringing universities into prisons for teaching, but Collins says most are on hold awaiting new MoJ safety guidance.

Storybook Dads helps prisoners make audio comics for their children. Its chief executive Sharon Betty says prisoners tend to have “poor memories of school” – almost half were excluded – but they feel “more encouraged” to improve their reading or digital skills after making a comic. 

Betty recalls an illiterate Irish traveller who went on to learn to read, after the experience of creating an Ugly Duckling comic for his daughter’s eighth birthday moved him to tears.

But reduced prison regimes mean the charity produces 3,500 stories a year now, compared to 5,000 pre-Covid.

“They may not want to go into a formal education setting to learn digital skills. But after they’ve made a comic they’re really proud of it and think, ‘actually, maybe I can learn to use a computer.’ So we’re making those little inroads.”

A comic made by a prisoner for their child thanks to the charity Storybook Dads

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  1. Jonathon

    Good article per se, but scant mention of the illiteracy/innumeracy problem. What happens to the 68% of prisoners who a) don’t get to the classroom to do Levels 1 and 2 as they are sometimes at RS3, b) are completely resistant to the didactic classroom-based approach which is necessitated by the current system (and will most likely continue under PES) due to poor school experience in earlier life and c) are therefore offered none of the proven rehabilitative benefits either in prison or on release to the community of learning to read.

    As someone with lived experience, I know how important the work of Shannon Trust is – it is the defacto method by which prisons pick up the slack that the formal education system and its providers are ill-funded to provide. I’m surprised that whilst Shannon Trust is predominantly contracted and funded from the DPS budgets, not the mainstream prison education bucket (why is that?), they are not part of your analysis or commentary.

    Or are the lost 68% just that? Is illiteracy and innumeracy in prison just too big an issue to address? What impact could focusing on that population and helping them to read and gain some comfort around numbers have on those individuals on their return to society (remember there are only 67 whole life sentences so all the rest will be out at some stage) or the £18bn annual cost of recidivism? We don’t know. But not addressing the issue doesn’t exactly help.

    Oh and by the way, the CEO of Shannon Trust is Ian Merrill. Sharon Berry is the CEO of Storybook Dads so the caption under Sharon’s picture is incorrect.

  2. Lucy H

    A sad but true read, as a former education manager and now a researcher of prison education I can attest to the fact that the contracts are the problem. The monetising of education has made it a profit making endeavour rather than a facility to support prisoners to engage and ignite learning. Teachers are under immense pressure to ‘get learners through’ qualifications in a very short time, without acknowledgement of prior educational trauma or specific learning needs addressed. The model is wrong; teachers in prisons need investment through training and improved pay and conditions and then given autonomy to work with prisoners to design curricula and teaching approaches that meet learner needs.

    • Stephen Allsobrook

      The monetising of the education system is the reason behind the redundancies and increased workload of staff at HMP Berwyn following the renewal of the contract. The union agreed to the measures whilst telling its members that there should be no increase i workload for members, the whole “consultation” process was a farce.