From education to employment

Four ways to transform prison education

Peter Cox

Novus’ Peter Cox responds to a blog by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons Charlie Taylor, and outlines how changes to how prison education is delivered, contracted and funded could drive up standards for prisoners across the country

It’s hard to think of any part of the FE and skills sector that has as much potential to change lives as prison education. And when it is done well, it brings massive benefits for the individual, for employers, for the UK economy and for society as a while.

But it is also the toughest environment in which to succeed through education. Prisoners typically have far lower levels of prior attainment than the general population – over half of adult prisoners have literacy levels below those expected of an 11-year-old. And many prisoners have had limited or indeed negative previous experiences of education stemming from their own childhood. Add into this the myriad structural, financial and cultural obstacles which prevent prison education from achieving the biggest possible impact, and it’s understandable that in his latest blog, Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, poses the question: “What’s going wrong with education in prisons?”

For those unfamiliar with the complex world of prison education, it is understandable that, when faced with worrying reoffending rates and critical prison inspection reports, some commentators conclude that prison education is not up to scratch. But the context in which providers currently operate makes it impossible for providers to deliver the outcomes that prisoners and society at large desire. I will address each of the points made by Charlie Taylor, and highlight ways in which we can get prison education on the right track.

Making education a priority in prisons

It is understandable that ministers and governors alike prioritise safety and security in prisons above all else. But this does not have to be to the detriment of education. There are plenty of examples of prison governors Novus works with who offer full support to education, recognising its critical importance. Handing more power and accountability to governors, and holding them responsible for the education on offer in their establishment, would be a game changer.

Similarly, the pay prisoners receive for work is all too often higher than what they receive for engaging in education. In effect they are financially incentivised to carry out cleaning, cooking and laundry at the expense of improving their skills and gaining valuable qualifications. This sends out a worrying message about the importance of education. Addressing this imbalance would make a real difference.

Addressing low attendance

The Chief Inspector’s clear frustration at the challenges in enabling prisoners to access education is understandable. At Novus we support moves to bring pandemic restrictions to an end across the prison estate, to allow as many learners as possible to develop the skills they need to find employment upon release. However the blog uses an anecdote to criticise education managers who it claims are taking “the easy option” of cancelling classes.

Teaching staff who choose to work in this most challenging of sectors deserve our admiration, and play a key role in empowering prisoners to break the cycle of reoffending. Yes, there is lots of work to be done to raise the status and profile of education in custodial settings – but the claim that “no one is that bothered” does a disservice to committed education staff changing lives in prisons across the country.

Creating a curriculum fit for the 21st century

Ofsted’s recent reports have raised valid concerns about the curriculum on offer in prisons. A key reason for this is the low levels of capital funding available. This must be increased to allow education providers to equip prisons with the facilities needed to provide the skills and qualifications employers require, and to meet the needs of local and regional economies.

To date there has been little appetite by ministers to stump up the significant amount of funding required to transform the dilapidated, largely Victorian prison estate into an education setting fit for the 21st century. Novus has itself invested £12.8 million in upgrading IT infrastructure across 43 prisons, but far more needs to be done.

The blog’s criticism that “education providers did not see it as their responsibility to teach prisoners to read” requires unpacking. Current Prison Education Framework contracts prioritise the delivery of qualifications. When commissioning education provision, more thought needs to be given as to what can be done to help those individuals who do not have the literacy skills required to access qualifications at level 1 and above.

Providers are funded to teach specific courses, not to teach individuals to read; for those who are unable to read, this starting point is beyond their grasp. Greater flexibility in the new Prison Education Service contracts would free up providers to deliver a curriculum focused on need.

Empowering providers through clearer accountability

Education providers do not shy away from scrutiny. Indeed, in our view the current prison inspection framework doesn’t go far enough in offering clarity to the public. Reports by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons feature a single grade for all aspects of a prison’s educational performance, some of which are the responsibility of the education provider and some of which are not. This means that there is no clear line of accountability in the same way as a school or a college. A discrete grade for the provider would allow inspection reports to hold providers to account more effectively.

Just like schools and colleges, prison education providers are held accountable for performance through comprehensive governance arrangements, alongside an external inspection regime. But whereas schools and colleges are, in return, given a significant degree of autonomy to deliver high-quality education within these parameters, excessive commercial contract management controls under PEF deny our highly-trained teaching staff the opportunity to full exercise their professional judgement in the best interests of their learners. As the Chief Inspector points out:

Senior prison staff frequently tell me about their frustrations – while they may be able to resolve minor issues on the ground, anything more serious with contract compliance needs to go through the Ministry of Justice… It is a fantasy to think the challenges of prison education are going to be solved by turning the dials on a central contract. If we want to see outstanding prison education in the future, we need a radical solution that reduces central control and cedes power and accountability to governors. They need to be made both responsible and accountable for the quality of education in their prisons with clear, public measures of success that show how their jail is performing against its peers.

At Novus, we would argue that this principle should also be extended to prison education providers. We take accountability and monitoring quality seriously. If accepting greater publicly scrutiny would enable us to earn the autonomy we need to deliver even better education to those learners who need it most, we would embrace this wholeheartedly. The new Prison Education Service offers the government the opportunity to make this ambition into reality. This is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.

By Peter Cox , Managing Director of Novus

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