Francesca Cooney | 17 August 2022
This article originally featured in Independent Monitor, July 2022
Prison education has the potential to change lives, and to give people the skills and knowledge they need to get jobs and lead settled lives. Despite this, education is rarely seen as part of rehabilitation or the “rehabilitative culture” in prisons. Recent conversations about future regime design and promoting on-wing activities have not always included education providers. Education, too, is often the forgotten part of the “Employment/Training/Education” pathway in resettlement.
PET were therefore delighted when the Education Select Committee announced its inquiry into prison education. We saw the inquiry as a rare opportunity to consider prison learning through an education, rather than justice, lens and to make comparisons with further education in the community.
Originally entitled “Are prisoners being left behind?” (Spoiler alert: the answer is yes), the long-awaited report “Not just another brick in the wall” was published in May this year.
The remit was wide-ranging, the committee sought evidence on the purpose, effectiveness, resources for, and monitoring of, prison education. It also reviewed how well additional learning needs were assessed and met; whether prison education was delivering skills for employers and apprenticeships; and how the operation of prisons impacted on the delivery of education.
The committee held seven evidence sessions looking at different areas, including one with former learners and one with Ofsted and the Prison Education Framework providers who gave some very honest feedback about the operation of the education contracts.
The statistics make grim reading. As the committee notes, there is very clear data that people who participate in prison education are 7.5% less likely to reoffend. Yet 60% of prisons score under the line in Ofsted and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) Inspections. Over recent years, the numbers of people participating in classes has reduced, as have the numbers of learners achieving qualifications, particularly at higher levels of study which are rarely available. Over recent years, the government has announced several policy initiatives around prison education, but these have not been realised – and have not led to better outcomes for learners.
Many of the findings in the report will not be surprising to IMB members. Prison education is undervalued and under-resourced. Fundamentally, the committee identifies that “prison education is in a perilous state due to a continual decline in funding”.
Resources for prison education have not increased for many years and are well below levels for further education in the community. There are no clear budget commitments for prison education in the Prisons Strategy white paper, published last December, despite the pledge to create a Prison Education Service. Worryingly, the initial information that has been released regarding the next iteration of the education contracts suggests that the budget has not yet been increased.
Alongside the additional funding needed to be able to deliver decent prison education, the committee recognises that “Without significant investment in the prison estate, in buildings, classrooms, equipment and technology, prisoners will not be able to get the skills and qualification that they need to find employment to turn their lives around”.
Witnesses agreed that there was a need for capital investment in the prison estate. Tutors from Milton Keynes College told the committee that they had to deal with “rotting walls and doors, mould, leaking roofs requiring buckets, lack of adequate heating”.
Consequently one of the recommendations it that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) must undertake an audit across the whole prison estate on the quality of physical infrastructure necessary to provide a high level of education, such as libraries, classrooms and workshops.
The committee also considered how to create a prison culture that supports education and how to incentivise prisoners to study. It recommends that the MoJ ensures that pay for education is equal to the pay for prison work and encourages using Release on Temporary license (ROTL) as an incentive to encourage prisoners to engage with education.
The report grapples with the issue of how to make prison education an operational priority. The suggestion is a new role of a deputy governor with responsibility for education, who has a further education background. The Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA) – coordinated by PET – has long argued for more senior input and oversight into education in prisons, with a governor level role that has a place on the prison’s senior leadership team. And in fact, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service is already piloting a new role in six prisons – the Head of Learning, Work and Skills. This will see the responsibility for activities move out of the gargantuan remit that is the Head of Reducing Reoffending and create a new equivalent level role. It will be interesting to see how this works in practice.
The committee had a particular interest in the treatment of people with additional learning needs. It is critical of the assessment and screening process, and identifies that the true scale of the challenge is not known. While screening for additional learning needs is now in place for new prisoners, the numbers with these needs are not known across the whole prison estate.
The current screening process is not adequate to identify prisoners with additional learning needs. The committee believes that there is a strong case for every prisoner to receive an assessment for learning needs from an education psychologist, or at the very least a more intensive form of screening, and it asks that the MoJ prepares a cost appraisal for implementing such an approach.
At PET, we agree that there needs to be changes in the screening process, and more detailed assessments. However, educational psychologists’ assessments can cost around £500 and may not be presented in a complicated way that is not clear to other staff. We would like to see screening tools that have clear instructions and can be used by non-specialist staff (following training, and with supervision and monitoring from specialist staff). Where screenings suggest people might need more support, then a fuller assessment should be done.
Information sharing about additional learning needs is also a problem – both between departments in prisons and from the community into prisons. The committee argues for greater integrated working between different providers in custody – between education, health, and offender management. Many people in prison will have had screenings, assessments and even diagnosis in the community. The committee recommends that the government amends legislation to enable data from the National Pupil Database to be shared, including information prisoners’ previous diagnosis on learning needs and their records of educational attainment.
It welcomed the government’s recent commitment in the white paper to provide dedicated specialist support staff, (the neurodiversity coordinators based at Accelerator Prisons) but states that the government must ensure that there is adequate resourcing for this. It also recommends that there should be a minimum of one SENCo (Special Educational Needs Coordinator) per prsion which PET strongly supports. Currently there is an average of one per four prisons – which is woeful.
There are no clear budgets for prison education.
Resources – or the lack of them – are a key theme in the report. Last year, the University and College Union (UCU) and PLA surveyed over 400 prison educators, finding that seven out of ten wanted to leave prison education. The committee comments that, “Poor pay, lack of career development, unsafe working environments and no time or respect to do a quality job has left the recruitment and retention of qualified and experienced prison educators at crisis point.”
And the committee is clear that the current lack of access to digital technology is a significant barrier to learning, reducing opportunities to engage in education and leaving prisoners unprepared for the real world. It recommends that the government sets out timed plans for prisons to be able to support broadband by the end of the year. This would revolutionise prison education.
What next for the report, and more importantly for prison education? The MoJ has to respond by 18 July (but this may well be delayed, due to other priorities). The response will probably centre on the plans in the white paper, as well as the new roles in Accelerator Prisons and the fact that it has started market engagement on the new Prisoner Education Service, with new contracts expected to start in April 2025.
The Education Select Committee review has created a new interest in prison education. Ofsted and HMIP have conducted a review of reading and are currently carrying out a review on support for people with additional learning needs. The Association of Colleges recently published a report on the challenges facing prison education providers and the Department of Education has asked the Further Education Commissioner’s office how they can help prison education to improve.
There is a renewed focus and attention on prison education – which is hugely welcome. But without regimes that can support education delivery and increased resources for the new education contracts, the Education Select Committee’s hopes for better prison education will not be realised.
© Prisoners' Education Trust 2023