From education to employment

Celebrating 30 years of prison education

Peter Cox is managing director of Novus, part of the LTE Group

As leading prison education provider Novus marks its 30th anniversary, Managing Director Peter Cox reflects on three decades of delivering programmes to hard-to-reach learners – and looks forward to another 30 years of innovation

Over the last three decades, the prison education sector has changed beyond recognition. What started out as a low-key provision run by the former HM Prison Service under contracts managed by the Home Office has radically evolved. Today, the sector draws on dedicated specialist providers from further education to deliver evidence-based programmes which equip prisoners with the skills they need to find stable employment upon release.

While the Novus name didn’t come into existence until 2015, its journey began some 30 years ago. In a move to support the communities it served, the former City College Manchester (which has since become part of The Manchester College) took the strategic decision to focus on prison education, building upon its work at HMP Manchester (or, as it was known at the time, Strangeways). It was a model that worked effectively, with the up-to-date pedagogical practices and skills of the College teaching staff breathing new life into classes for prisoners. It was around this time that I joined the College, initially as a HR officer before coming to specialise in the prison education in the years that followed.

Since then, the model has gradually expanded nationwide. Today we deliver education from Northumberland to London and many points in between, most recently into Wales through our partnerships with Coleg Cambria and Gower College. In 2015, Novus was created as a dedicated business unit with a specialism in prison education and a real understanding of the complex challenges faced by our learners. We have never strayed from our roots in further education, however, and the following year became part of the LTE Group family.

Today the Group spans technical education, apprenticeships, professional training and higher education. This means that we benefit from having a talented team of Novus colleagues who are steeped in prison education and with masses of experience and knowledge of what it’s like to teach in this most challenging of contexts, but they also have the opportunity to share knowledge and experience with teachers in mainstream education.

Independent scrutiny, improving standards

Just has Novus has evolved, so has prison education as a whole. Back in the 1990s the sector was often regarded as a service that marked its own homework with no external scrutiny. Since then it has been transformed, initially coming under the oversight of the Department for Education before more recently moving under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). In what can only be a positive, this journey has placed the sector under robust external scrutiny, initially from the Adult Learning Inspectorate until it became part of Ofsted in 2007.

This close monitoring has placed greater emphasis on quality of provision and ensuring that offenders can access high-quality programmes of education which meet their needs. Last year alone, five establishments where Novus operates received were graded ‘good’ for their overall effectiveness in terms of education provision; our quality team are continuing to work with colleagues across Novus to ensure that more prison teams receive the same accolade this year.

A focus on reducing reoffending

Over the last three decades, we have seen significant change across prisons. The overall population has more than doubled from 42,000 to 88,000; privately-operated prisons have been introduced; and, most positively, there has been an increased focus on standards and the impact of education on reducing reoffending. 

This focus on reoffending is one that has, in part, been driven by changing public attitudes towards justice. Last year, Novus conducted independent polling which found that 60% of voters agreed that educating prisoners and developing their skills was a good way to use taxpayers’ money. When those surveyed were informed that, according to MoJ data, reoffending costs the economy £18 billion every year and that education is proven to reduce reoffending, the level of support for educating prisoners and developing their skills increased to 68% overall. This consensus spanned the political divide, with support ranging from to 65% amongst Conservative voters to 73% among Labour voters.

When our journey first started in the early ‘90s, such strong public support for our work would have been unimaginable. Across the sector we need to make sure that we capitalise on this to further champion the vital role we carry out and ensure that, in a General Election year, politicians listen to the public and commit to further enhancing the programmes of education which are offered in prisons.

The future is now

A large part of this process will be building on the work that we are undertaking today. With the UK suffering from major skills shortages in the economy, it is vitally important that more is done to align prison education with the skills needed in the labour market. Already Novus is designing courses around local employment needs, working closely with New Futures Network colleagues and our own Novus Works team, who in turn liaise directly with key employer partners to support learners in finding a career away from crime upon release. A striking example of this is our ‘Yorkshire Model’, an innovative approach to creating joined-up education and careers advice provision across the Yorkshire and Humber region. This led to the number of prisoners progressing into employment, education or training after their release increasing by 65% over a three-year period. As highlighted in a 2023 report by the influential Centre for Social Justice thinktank, this offers a blueprint for more connected working in the education and employment support sectors across the country.

We know from talking to our employer partners that although they may have initially started to employ prisoners to demonstrate their social value, they have continued to use this recruitment pathway after finding former prisoners to be hard-working, reliable employees. That a prison record no longer equates to being shunned from the workforce after release is yet another sign of how much positive work the prison education sector has done – and how public opinion has shifted – in the last 30 years.

But there is more work to be done. Another ongoing priority must be ensuring that prison education plays its role in equipping people with the digital skills that are required to drive economic growth. We know that digital access has often been a challenge in prisons due to the challenges of enabling secure access in an ageing estate. But this matters. If a learner coming to the end of a lengthy sentence is unable to operate a smartphone or send an email, the challenge they face in securing employment becomes significantly more difficult. Novus has repeatedly championed the importance of digital access, recently launching its first ever digital strategy. Successfully implementing this will be crucial if we are to truly connect those furthest away from employment with the opportunities that exist in the job market – both now and in the future.

Celebrating prison education

Reflecting on 30 years in prison education highlights just how much the sector, and providers such as Novus, have to celebrate in terms of the positive impact they have made in transforming the lives of thousands of our learners. Today, colleagues from across Novus and our partners will hold an event to recognise this and share best practice so that we will have more success stories to celebrate in the years to come.

As we turn our minds to the next 30 years, it will be vital to remember that we must continue to challenge the voices of those who wrongly assume that prison education merely exists to give prisoners something to do. The evidence is clear: prison education helps offenders into employment and reduces reoffending. With further investment and political support, we can continue to reduce both crime and the financial cost to society which results from it. By working together, we can prepare prisoners for a positive, productive life after release – and that is something which we all stand to benefit from.

By Peter Cox, Managing Director of Novus

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