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As part of our ongoing interest in the issues affecting prisoner education, FE News is proud to bring you the first of a two-part interview with the Chairman of the Forum on Prisoner Education (FPE), Steve Taylor.

In this initial instalment our Union Affairs Correspondent, Phil Byrne, discovers why the Danes are outscoring us not just on the football pitch; questions the public's affinity with the affable British "Bobby"; and learns why some kids end up swapping a desk for a prison cell.

Funding

Phillip Byrne: "Why do you think it is easier for the Government to get away with under funding in this sector of education compared to that of say, schools or colleges?"

Steve Taylor: "It depends what you"re comparing it with as to whether it's being under-funded. Budgets in offender education have increased enormously in the last seven years; they"ve gone up by a huge amount, something like 600% in fact. The underlying issue here is that while the Government are very much committed to offender education through offender learning and skills, they are always conscious, as they are in every area, about what the Daily Mail's reaction is going to be.

"I actually believe we should spend more money on education for offenders than we do on education for children, or certainly an equal amount. At the end of the day, these people [offenders] have generally missed out on education. There should be a huge amount of money going into prisoner education to try and lift these people up from where they are.

"Of course, politically that is not an acceptable idea; what you would find is a huge public reaction or a perceived huge public reaction to the idea that we start spending money on offenders and that's something that the Government is always conscious of, but I think that in this particular case, they are overly conscious.

"In my experience even the most powerful of the "hang them and flog them" brigade are actually very much in favour of prisoner education because it's the one part of prison life that's hard to dispute. The vast majority of people think that prisoner education is a good idea; after all, prisoners who take part in education are three times less likely to re-offend."

Bobbies on the Beat, Crime Prevention?

Phillip Byrne: "Why is it that around election time all we hear is politician after politician heralding new plans to put more bobbies on the beat instead of Further Education in prisons? There are plenty of credible sources, including the Home Office education and skills committee, who have established the link between education and the prevention of re-offending. If the Government cannot claim ignorance why are they not listening?"

Steve Taylor: "This is the first election, that I know of, when all three parties actually addressed prisoner education. To answer the question in terms of "bobbies on the beat" - The public, mistakenly in fact, believe that a greater level of policing on the streets reduces crime. "Bobbies on the beat" don"t reduce crime. There's actually a really interesting statistic that even if you had every copper in the country walking the streets, they would only come across a crime once every twenty eight days. It's a fairly ineffective way of dealing with crime, but it is both visible and tangible.

"Every member of the public knows what a prison looks like, however, very few have an idea of what goes on inside them and don"t much care in fact. In other areas of public policy it's always the visible concerns that people want things done about, for example, in hospitals it is "cleanliness". These subjects make good news stories because they"re visible and something which matter to all of us. If it's behind the closed doors of a prison, people tend to either forget or just remain ignorant about it. I think that's why politicians, rather mistakenly, clamour to be the toughest on crime or toughest on the offender."

A Sink or Swim World

Phillip Byrne: "I have read on your website that half of all prisoners do not have the skills required by 96% of jobs. Does crime prevention start in the classroom?"

Steve Taylor: "In April I went to Denmark and spoke at a conference of prison teachers. I talked about what prison education is like in this country and about the [general] level of skills and qualifications. The one [statistic] that shocked them the most, and I think is a national disgrace, is the fact that 1 in 4 people [not prisoners] in this country have no qualifications at all.

"I think that's bloody shocking. These are people who haven"t even got the GCSE level qualification and probably [have] not even got a swimming certificate. We have to realise that the more we engage with young people in schools and the more we actually deal with peoples" skills then the less likely people are to re-offend later.

"The quickest route into crime for the vast majority of young people is to be excluded from school. [Speaking of Rex Bloomstein's recently aired documentary, "Kids Behind Bars"] He was interviewing people in custody up in the north east and every single one of them had a history of being excluded from school. There is a need to look at what we are doing in that area. The Government have set up pupil referral units and pupil reclusion units, but their effectiveness is questionable because all they do is engage with the young person two or three times a week and not in full time normal education, which is where kids need to be."

Learning to Improve

Phillip Byrne: "Can we learn from any other countries?"

Steve Taylor: "The Scandinavian countries lead the way in terms of education generally and certainly in terms of offender education. They have superb facilities. It's actually enshrined in Danish law that all prisoners have to receive education, including full time education if that's what they want. Whereas here, it's pot luck as to whether or not you do [receive education when in prison]. It certainly reflects in their crime rates."

FE News would like to thank Steve Taylor for his time, especially because he gave up part of his well-earned holiday entitlement to speak to us"¦now that is commitment!

Phillip Byrne, Union Affairs Correspondent

Behind bars is not behind closed doors. Tell us what you think in the FE Blog

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