Ofsted Annual Report: a concerning picture of prison education

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Francesca Cooney, Head of Policy | 21 January 2020

Learner with Sociology textbook

The Ofsted Annual Report, published today, paints a concerning picture of prison education, with many prisons still not showing enough signs of improvement. 

Ofsted, the government department responsible for inspecting education, children’s services and skills, have inspected 45 prisons over the course of the year from September 2018 to August 2019. Only 38% were judged as good, with 44% requiring improvement and 16% deemed inadequate.

They outline a number of areas where prisoners are getting a poor deal. For instance, when people enter prison, they are supposed to have education assessments and to work with staff to produce individual learning plans. But Ofsted found that one third of the prisons inspected did not do this effectively, meaning some prisoners were allocated to work or education that was not suitable for them.

Number of prisoner learners remains low

Shockingly, Ofsted also state that the number of prisoner learners in level 2 courses during 2017/18 was the second lowest since 2012. Numbers of learners in level 3 courses also remain low: the figure given is 200 but as the data is rounded up, it could be even lower.

The reporting period covers seven months under the old OLASS education contracts and five months under the new PEF contracts. However, the data is not broken down for the two contracts, meaning that we do not yet know about the impact of the new arrangements.

Not enough help to find work on release

Six prisons and YOIs were downgraded to inadequate this year. In these, inspectors found that there were too few activity spaces for prisoner learners, the curriculum was not suitable, and there was not enough careers guidance on offer.

Employability is supposed to be an important part of the government’s strategy to support prisoners. However, Ofsted note that in many of their inspections, prisoners do not receive enough help to find work on release, with many neither gaining vocational qualifications nor having a record of what they have learnt to show employers. Ofsted also say that not enough prisoners have access to the secure intranet system for prisons, the Virtual Campus, to look for jobs or to take courses.

Leadership and management the poorest performing

 Leadership and management were the poorest performing areas. Ofsted highlight that senior teams had often not prioritised education and had not acted on recommendations from the last inspection. Recurring problems with prisoner attendance were not managed effectively.

Only one prison, HMP Askham Grange (an open prison for women), was judged as outstanding. With exceptional links with employers, good progression plans for learners, and courses that meet most of the learners’ needs, the prison actually received Ofsted’s highest score in all areas.

What needs to change?

While it is inspiring to read about the education offered to women there, the fact remains that education in 60% of prisons was judged not to be good enough. Action is urgently needed to support education and speed up progress in these establishments.

So, what would PET like to happen? We would like to see more engagement in education, a greater number of learner voice councils, and prisoner mentors used to support others to learn. Provision should be more varied, with students able to study high-quality courses at levels that meet their needs and support their self-development, further learning, or employment prospects. Lastly, achievements should be recorded and recognised, to support motivation, build confidence and improve the chances of employment on release.

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