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Government plans for adult education must permeate the prison wall

Jon Collins, Chief Executive, Prisoners' Education Trust
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Today (21 Oct) the government’s Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, second day of report stage is being debated in the House of Lords. 

This Bill follows the publication of a White Paper, ‘Skills for Jobs’, earlier this year and is part of the government’s focus on ensuring that all adults have the skills needed to get good quality jobs.

As the Prime Minister said when launching the Lifetime Skills Guarantee,

“at every stage of your life, this government will help you get the skills you need”.

Yet so far the government has had little to say about how their plans to revamp adult education will affect one group for whom education can be genuinely life-changing – people in prison.

‘Skills for Jobs’ does not mention prison education at all, while plans for a new Prison Education Service, promised in the last Conservative manifesto, are yet to emerge.

This is despite the impact that effective education in prison can have. Reoffending rates for people leaving prison remain stubbornly high. But evidence consistently shows that engaging in education in prison makes people less likely to commit further offences on release.

Indeed the Ministry of Justice’s own data shows that people in prison who take distance learning courses funded by Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) are significantly less likely to reoffend and are more likely to be employed than otherwise similar people who do not.

People in prison must not be forgotten

To secure these benefits on a wider scale, however, a significant shake-up of prison education is required. At present, prison education largely consists of basic literacy, numeracy and IT skills and some limited vocational training. With more than 60% of people arriving in prison with English and maths levels at or below those expected of an eleven-year-old, this provision is clearly needed. But it is not in itself sufficient.

What is needed to complement this is a broader educational offer. GCSEs, A-levels and vocational education that provides the qualifications that employers really need should be routinely available. A more personalised approach is also needed, reflecting the differing educational backgrounds and aspirations of people in prison.

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To achieve this, people in prison must not be forgotten as the government’s adult skills agenda develops.

What is on offer in the community should, as far as possible, also be available in prison, to ensure that people leave with a fair chance of entering employment. Better links are needed between prisons and local further education colleges, while the forthcoming spending review is an opportunity to fund the provision of in-cell digital technology across the prison estate.

The role of the voluntary sector

But education in prison is not only provided through government contracts. The voluntary sector also has an important role to play. This includes my own organisation, PET, which has published a new organisational strategy setting out our goals for the next five years.

PET was founded to give people in prison the chance to take distance learning courses in subjects and at levels that would otherwise be unavailable to them. This remains at the heart of what we do.

But we now want to build on this. At present, only a minority of people in prison apply to PET for support and some prisons and communities are underrepresented in the applications that we receive. We want to address this, ensuring that access to PET is inclusive and that as many people in prison as possible have the opportunity to get our support.

This will involve working with partner organisations to promote and support our work. It will also mean developing the support that we offer learners – to enable them to take the right courses and gain the qualifications that they need for their future plans.

Benefitting prisoners, employers and wider society

By supporting a broader range of learners, we can do our bit to provide people in prison with educational opportunities that will help them to gain employment or set them on the path to further education or training in the community.

This is, however, only a small part of the picture. What is needed alongside this is for the government’s current focus on skills and further education to permeate the prison wall and give people in prison the same opportunities afforded to their peers in the community. This will not only benefit prisoners themselves, but also employers and wider society.

Jon Collins, Chief Executive, Prisoners’ Education Trust

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