Prison education: three priorities for the new government

Home > Prison education: three priorities for the new government

Jon Collins, Chief Executive | 08 July 2024

Learner in prison library with book

Congratulations to Shabana Mahmood and James Timpson, appointed on Friday as Justice Secretary and Prisons Minister respectively. Theirs is one of the toughest inheritances in the government, and their first priority will inevitably be to deal with the prison capacity crisis.

But over the summer months, as they get to grips with the immediate pressures, they should be careful not to neglect prison education, an issue that James Timpson should know well having sat on the expert panel supporting Dame Sally Coates’ 2016 government-commissioned review.

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Prison education can help people while they are in prison, improving mental health and wellbeing, and on release, increasing their chances of employment and reducing reoffending. At a time when the system is struggling so much, it is too important to ignore.

There are longer-term issues to consider, but in the next few months what are the three most immediate priorities for ministers on prison education?

1. Review the new contracts

Firstly, the Ministry of Justice is in the latter stages of the process for agreeing the next set of prison education contracts. They are due to start next year, so the window for making changes is relatively small. But there is still time to look at the proposed performance indicators and consider whether they are genuinely fit for purpose.

Will they lead to a focus on prioritising attendance – an issue repeatedly raised with the current contracts – or on providing the best education possible to people in prison, based on their needs and aspirations? Without interfering unduly in the commercial process, a fresh pair of eyes could help ensure it’s the latter.

While looking at the contracting process, ministers should also restart the process whereby five prisons were due to be taken out of the standard education contracts and enabled to develop their own, bespoke education provision. This has been put on hold but it is an important way to test different approaches. Getting it back underway should be a priority.

2. Find some extra funding

Secondly, there is a need to look at funding. Every bit of the public realm will be asking for more money, and there will not be much available, but prison education is crying out for a funding boost. Funding for prison education has essentially been static for years, in effect a significant cut in real terms that leaves it severely underfunded. Numbers participating have dropped in recent years as real terms funding has failed to keep up with demand.

Longer term, a comprehensive review of prison education funding is needed. But as spending decisions are made for 2024-25, any additional funding that could be found for prison education would have real benefits.

3. Make education a priority

Finally, the new ministerial team should make it clear that education is a priority for them and should be for the prison system as a whole. As they visit prisons, they should make sure that they visit education departments and speak to learners and to prison teachers. They should praise good practice and report what they see back to the civil servants responsible for prison education. Ministers, clearly, have a lot of influence, both direct and indirect. They should use it to promote education as a priority for every prison.

Longer term issues

Longer term there are a raft of broader issues to address – from the terrible state of too many prison education departments and the almost total lack of access to digital devices and the internet, to the support provided to prison teachers and the need to provide a broader, more varied curriculum. PET will publish a briefing in September that explores these issues – and what needs to be done about them – in more detail.

But in the meantime, despite other pressing problems, the new ministerial team in the Ministry of Justice should not lose sight of the issues facing prison education. Any improvements that can be made will make prisons a more hopeful and productive place for the people who live and work in them.

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© Prisoners' Education Trust 2024

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