In a week dominated by the High Court Judgment on parliament’s role in Brexit and the American presidential election, you may have missed the fact that the Government announced an important and long-awaited step forward.
I’m talking, of course, of the publication of its Prison Safety and Reform White Paper. Legislation to reform prisons and courts to give individuals a second chance was announced in last summer’s Queen’s Speech. This followed the publication of Dame Sally Coates’ review, and was championed by then justice Secretary Michael Gove. But with the EU referendum result and the subsequent change of Government, I had worried this might have been kicked into the long grass.
Thankfully, that’s not been the case. Announcing the proposals, Gove’s successor Liz Truss argued that our prisons ‘need to be more than places of containment – they must be places of discipline, hard work and self-improvement’. That ambition was backed up by the measures outlined in the White Paper, including steps to increase levels of literacy and numeracy.
The proposals build on the Coates review and include making prison governors fully responsible for education provision, so that they can commission the services they think are most appropriate in their individual prison, and encouraging governors to work with local employers and use data on the local labour market gaps to choose the right vocational training. There will also be a new Prisoner Apprenticeship Pathway, offering prisoners opportunities that will count towards the completion of a formal apprenticeship on release.
Helping people get into a job and progress in that job is at the core of everything that City & Guilds does, both in the UK and around the globe, so as you can imagine I welcome that sentiment. It should go without saying – but unfortunately for too long it hasn’t been the case – that helping prisoners to acquire the skills they need to get into a job after they are released is vital in order to reduce reoffending rates and drive down the economic and social costs of crime.
There are many great champions of skills development in prison or to help those who have been released, including the Clink Charity Restaurants scheme, which gives prisoners real-life experience in the restaurant industry, and the St Giles Trust, a charity that does great work on rehabilitation and prevention of offending. We were proud to announce a £100,000 grant to the latter earlier this year, to support the development of its peer mentoring ex-offender employability programme in Leeds, London and Ipswich. Investment in tailored, one-to-one programmes like these is vital if we are to break the cycle of reoffending once and for all.
Equally, there are many unsung heroes striving every day to deliver a good and relevant education to men and women who had, in many cases, spent their lives marginalised from learning. Take, for example, Andrew Dennis, a construction and bricklaying tutor and recent City & Guilds Lion award winner, who works for training provider Novus and a decade ago opened up the brickshop at HMP Maidstone. There he has helped prisoners to develop not only their construction skills, but their employability skills too.
But despite these exemplary cases, provision of prison education remains patchy and restricted by a number of factors, from the challenges around offering e-learning and electronic certification in prisons to financial restrictions, or obstacles to linking prisons with education providers and employers. No wonder many ex-offenders struggle to get a job when they exit the criminal justice system, a problem that is directly linked to our staggeringly high reoffending figures
The plans unveiled by Truss last week mark a sea change in attitude towards prison education from the Government, and should pave the way to overcome these obstacles. Perhaps most importantly, it was heartening to see a commitment to increasing staff numbers in prisons. Quite aside from the need to have sufficient staff for welfare and security purposes, four out of five of the prisons we work with have raised staffing as the main challenge to delivering high-quality education.
For too long, prisoners have remained behind bars with little hope of developing the skills inside that they will need to thrive outside. This White Paper could be the start of a new era for prison education, one where we ensure that every person who deserves it is given a second chance to contribute to their own development and to society as a whole. It is now time to make the most of this opportunity.
Kevin Wilkinson, Prisons Business Manager at City & Guilds