Coates: One Year On

18 May 2017

By Nina Champion 

It was one year ago that I was sat excitedly listening to Dame Sally Coates set out her vision for prison education. Her speech, peppered with words such as “engagement”, “progression”, “technology” and a “whole-prison approach” was music to my ears. Most of her recommendations closely reflected those set out by the Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA) the year before, and I was delighted to see the Government accept them in full the very same day.

However, within weeks of the launch of Dame Sally’s Unlocking Potential report, the political landscape had shifted dramatically, and the UK’s looming exit of the EU, rather than the state of its prisons, became the country’s major political concern. As things began to settle under a new Secretary of State, the task for the sector became how to continue the momentum behind Dame Sally’s report – how to translate her words into action on the ground, so that they brought real benefits to people in prison.

So what progress have we made over the last year in prison education? On a sector-wide level, the most significant change, and success, has been the addition of three new funding streams for education providers to include ‘Engagement and Progression’, ‘Enablers to Learning’ and a miscellaneous category. This broadens the definition of what type of education is ‘worthwhile’, combating a results-driven mentality which, as Dame Sally had pointed out, can prioritise even useless qualifications over the arts and sports-based learning that can be so effective at hooking reluctant learning into education and providing personal and social development. The flexible funding is also allowing prisons to better support distance learning. A prison education manager told me a few weeks ago that the message was gradually getting across that “not everything has to lead to an accreditation”. The PLA looks forward to examining how providers have been using the new flexible funding streams in a series of ‘knowledge exchange’ workshops at our conference in September.

Another change has been the pilot reform prisons, where executive governors have led innovation. This includes HMP Wandsworth, which has engaged a former prisoner - LJ Flanders - to deliver fitness and goal-setting workshops, an endorsement of the positive impact Dame Sally found that former prisoners could have on inspiring learners. Other individual prisons have taken it upon themselves to push forward Coates’ recommendations, with HMP Littlehey setting up a ‘Coates Task Force’ to monitor the progress of each aspect of Dame Sally’s review, and HMP Bronzefield, which has invited Dame Sally to be on their new prison advisory group, and whose new strategy echoes her call for education to be “in the heart” of the prison.

There are developments in technology, with HMP Wayland and new prison HMP Berwyn introducing in-cell devices and ambitious plans for roll out of self-service ICT, although functionality for e-learning remains less clear and the current closed system is not yet as far-reaching as Dame Sally envisioned. 

Prison/university partnerships - highlighted by Coates as an example of good practice - are also flourishing between more and more institutions. Next summer new ‘framework contracts’ will begin to prisons opportunities for collaborations and partnership working with a variety of organisations including local colleges, as is shown in the HMP Berwyn contract involving both Novus and local FE college Coleg Cambria. However details have been scant about what this will look like in practice and how the process will be fair and transparent so that providers - big and small – can work together to provide a range of opportunities to meet the needs of different populations of prisoners at different prisons.

In many ways, the last year in our prisons has been overshadowed by the tragic continued increase in deaths in custody, self-harm and violence, making prisons ever more challenging environments in which to establish effective learning culture. The Unlocked Graduate scheme, endorsed by Dame Sally, will recruit university leavers to prison officer posts, but this alone cannot solve the staffing shortages that remain a significant challenge for governors, and which mean even the basics of getting prisoners to the classroom or library are often impossible to fulfil. This was reflected in a recent scathing report from The Council of Europe, which recommended urgent action to enable prisoners to access education and called for Coates’ recommendations be implemented urgently.

And then of course we had the announcement of another General Election, only weeks away. This announcement halted the progress of the Prisons and Courts Bill which aims to put rehabilitation as the core purpose of prisons. What will happen to the proposed prison success indicators, and how we measure the success of each prison in order to populate the league tables Dame Sally envisioned – remains to be seen.

Ten years ago, I was working at the charity Women in Prison (WiP) when Baroness Corston published her acclaimed report into women in the criminal justice system. A few weeks ago WiP published a report using with traffic light coding, which showed a few areas of progress, but frustratingly many more amber and red lights than the sector had hoped would be the case 10 years before.

A year one from its own seminal review, the prison education sector now holds its breath as it waits for what will come next. The past year has seen good progress on a number of Dame Sally’s recommendations, but we all need to remain determined within our own areas of influence to continue the momentum both at a grass-roots and policy level, whatever the shifting political landscape. Only this will ensure that for prisoners engaging with education, there are only green lights ahead.