Getting the new prison education contracts right

Home > Getting the new prison education contracts right

Jon Collins, Chief Executive | 05 June 2023

Learners in a prison classroom.

In the next two months, the Ministry of Justice is expected to begin the formal bidding process for the provision of education in public sector prisons in England.

Starting from April 2025, these new contracts will replace the current Prison Education Framework (PEF) contracts and aim to fulfil the pledge in the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto to “create a prisoner education service focused on work-based training and skills”.

What we know so far

Over the last year, the Ministry of Justice has been conducting ‘market engagement’, a process whereby they talk to potential providers about their ideas for the new services. As a result, we already know a reasonable amount about what the new contracts are likely to look like, subject to any last-minute changes.

It does not seem that the new contracts will be as radical a change from the status quo as might have been expected. We know that they will be structurally similar to current contracts, with the country split into ‘lots’ and an outsourced specialist provider given a contract to provide education in the prisons in that area. These contracts will be managed nationally by the Ministry of Justice. Provision will focus on literacy and numeracy, as is currently the case.

What will change?

So what will differ from current provision? Firstly, the lots will be bigger. At present there are 17 lots altogether – 14 based on regions, two for the long-term estate and one for women’s prisons in northern England. It has been proposed that this will be reduced to 11 lots, all geographically based.

In addition, there will be a focus on enabling collaboration. The contracts will be used to drive co-operation at the local and regional level, bringing the provider together with other relevant stakeholders to ensure they are working together effectively.

This is welcome, but looking back our blog on the launch of the current PEF contracts in 2019, we noted that there was “an expectation of collaboration built into the PEF contracts”. It will be interesting to see what is different this time around.

Success measures and KPIs will also be tweaked to attempt to increase the importance of the quality of the provision in determining payments. So it won’t only be what is provided that decides the payments that the provider receives, but also how good it is.

Finally, these contracts will be complemented by a new specialist careers information, advice and guidance service. This will reverse the misguided decisions to scrap the previous careers service and commission careers support locally through the Dynamic Purchasing System. This is wholly welcome and closes an unacceptable gap in provision.

Getting the new contracts right

As the development of the new operating model enters its final stages, what are the key things for the Ministry of Justice to consider in finalising the new contracts?

1. They should be properly funded. Funding for prison education has essentially been static for years, in effect a significant cut in real terms that leaves it severely underfunded. While the new contracts will be indexed to take into account inflation over their lifetime, we don’t yet know how much funding will be available at the outset.

This is incredibly important. The government has made a clear commitment to improving prison education. They now need to put their money where their mouth is and make a substantial investment in the provision of a better service. Unless more funding is made available, the new providers risk being set up to fail. If it’s too late to persuade the Treasury and more funding really cannot be found, then the Ministry of Justice will need to be realistic about what the new providers will be able to deliver.

2. The new contracts need to be more flexible than the current arrangements. We need to have confidence in the providers that are selected to use the available resources to the maximum effect, based on the needs of the specific population that they are working with. An overly centralised approach, with a focus on inputs rather than outcomes, will not deliver the sort of flexibility that is needed to meet local needs and the needs of particular learners.

3. We need to see more breadth in the education that is available to people in prison. It is important to focus on literacy and numeracy, given what we know about the needs of the prison population. However we also need to give people the opportunity to progress, to explore their interests and to improve their chances of employment after prison. For some people that might be vocational training in workshops but for others it could be more classroom-based study. Both need to be accommodated. Freeing up providers to deliver a more varied curriculum is essential.

4. The new contracts need to ensure that providers properly invest in their workforce. Good teachers can be transformational in a prison environment but the workforce is struggling (as the PLA’s Hidden Voices report showed). Providers need to be enabled to better recruit, develop and support a high-quality workforce that relishes the challenges that teaching in a prison presents. This requires co-operation between providers on training and development – which the Ministry of Justice should facilitate – but also better pay, funded through the contracting process.

5. The contracting process needs to provide clarity on the provision of content for digital devices. Will the new providers be expected to provide digitised educational content as part of their contract? Or will somebody else have that responsibility, leaving the new providers to focus on face-to-face provision? If the latter, how will education provided face-to-face and that provided digitally align?

These new contracts will run for at least four years, and up to seven, and over that period the provision of digital devices must increase. But that will have no value educationally unless there is good quality content available.

These five points are a reasonable, if ambitious, starting point. It is now widely thought that the PEF contracts, introduced in 2019 following Dame Sally Coates’s review of prison education, were a missed opportunity to transform the delivery of prison education. It’s crucial for people in prison, who must get access to high quality education that meets their needs, that the next generation of prison contracts don’t fall into the same trap.

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