From education to employment

‘Chaotic’ prison education system in need of overhaul

Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the House of Commons Education Select Committee

Education must be at heart of prison system, say MPs, as new report highlights freefall in quality of and engagement with existing provision

Almost two thirds of prison inspections show poor quality management of the quality of education, skills and work, and the number ranked ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ has fallen dramatically in the past year. At the same time, the number of prisoners participating in education qualifications has plummeted. In the year 2017/18, the number of prisoners participating in a course equivalent to AS-levels or above showed a 90% decrease compared to the 2010/11 academic year.

In a new report, the House of Commons Education Select Committee highlights the cracks in a clunky, chaotic, disjointed system which does not value education as the key to rehabilitation. This is, say MPs, despite clear data showing that prisoners who participate in education whilst incarcerated are 7.5 percentage points less likely to reoffend than those who don’t.

Recognising employment as one of the core pathways to rehabilitation, the Committee campaigned for prisoners to be allowed to study for apprenticeships, a recommendation which the Education and Justice Secretaries accepted in February 2022. This is, says the report, a welcome ‘renewed focus on prison education’. 

However, without significant reform throughout prison education, many prisoners lack the support and tools still needed. The report underlines the failure of prisons to assess the individual educational capabilities and needs of every prisoner, and to identify prisoners with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). Without rigorous educational screening, access to the support and services needed is severely restricted, hampering the ability of prisoners to engage with educational courses. 

Key findings include:  

1. Failure to assess educational needs 

  • Over 30% of prisoners face learning challenges, although this is likely to be a gross underestimate, given that until 2019, self-assessment was the primary tool used to determine educational needs. 
  • The Government’s “two-part screening tool”, introduced to identify learning difficulties, is not adequate to identify prisoners with additional learning needs and is not consistent across every prison.
  • There are only 25 qualified Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators (SENCo) across all public prisons, equating to around one SENCo for every four prisons.

2. Education undervalued and under resourced 

3. Learning is disincentivised 

  • Prison education is often paid at a lower rate than unskilled work, acting as a disincentive to engage with education- with which many prisoners have had previously negative experiences.
  • Prisoners’ education is severely hampered by transfer between different institutions, as the transfer of educational records is often delayed, or does not happen at all, leaving transferred  prisoners disheartened and often leading to the abandonment of studies. 

4. Incentives must be provided- to prisoners and businesses

  • The proportion of former prisoners in P45 employment on year after release is just 17%, but data shows that employment is one of the most important factors in reducing reoffending. 
  • The Government’s commitment to improving the links between prisons and businesses is welcome. 

5. A digital divide

  • The majority of prisons in England and Wales do not have the cabling or hardware to support broadband, stifling opportunities to learn remotely though courses such as the Open University. 
  • Lack of digital access is widening the digital divide between prisoners and the wider population, restricting the ability to acquire employment and life skills. A change in attitude to technology in prisons is long overdue. 


  1. Rigorous assessments: The Government must introduce a rigorous screening and assessment process to evaluate the educational needs of each prisoner. Consistent across prisons, the process would determine levels of ability and identify prisoners with SEND and additional learning needs. The outdated education data and case management platform currently used is not fit for purpose, and must be re-designed to allow multiple learning difficulties to be identified and recorded. Funding must be properly allocated to allow for one Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators (SENCo) per prison.  
  2. Culture shift within prisons: There must be a ‘culture shift’ within prisons, embedding education within institutions. The Government must demonstrate its commitment to this aim by appointing a Deputy Governor of Learning for each prison. Prisons should also have clear and meaningful KPIs related to education, employment and training, which would be monitored by Ofsted.
  3. Individual digital education passports: Digital education passports should be introduced, containing a record of each prisoner’s learning and educational needs, which would facilitate better transfer of studies across the prison estate. Prisoners’ ongoing education- and whether their studies can be sustained- should also be taken into account when considering moving prisoners. The Government must also consider incentivising learning for prisoners who can demonstrate progress with their studies, including pay equal to prison work.
  4. Financial incentives for businesses: Businesses must be encouraged- through financial incentives- to overcome reservations about employing former prisoners. In any future review of the Apprenticeship Levy, the Government must allow businesses to direct the Levy towards prisoner rehabilitation schemes. The Government must also commit to publishing a clear timetable, setting out the roll-out of employment hubs across the prison estate and the establishment of Employment Advisers within the prison system.
  5. Transformation of digital infrastructure: The Government must carry out an audit of physical infrastructure necessary to provide high level of education across the prison estate. Prisoners must be equipped with the digital skills necessary for good employment opportunities upon leaving prisons. Using technology for educational purpose only, which allows access to be restricted to approved content which can be monitored, prisoners should be permitted digital resources to study. 

Chair of the Education Select Committee, the Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP said:

“For the majority of offenders, prison must be a place where an old life ends, and a new one begins. The key to starting again is education. Education- from a practical apprenticeship to a masters’ degree- increases employability, one of the most important factors in reducing reoffending. The argument for placing education at the heart of the prison system is a no-brainer: prisoners who engage with education and those who find employment on release are statistically less likely to reoffend.

“Yet, six years after these points were set out to the Government in a landmark review, prison education is in a chaotic place. Shambolic transfer of records, no assessment for educational needs and the lack of access to modern learning tools add up to paint a dismal picture. The Government has shown its commitment to enabling ex-prisoners to climb the ladder of opportunity by extending the apprenticeship scheme to prisoners, and I thank Nadhim Zahawi and Dominic Raab for recognising how important this is. However, there must be a root-and-branch overhaul that extends throughout prison culture. 

“The prison system must be held accountable for preventing re-offending, and therefore for making education accessible and high quality. I urge the Government to carefully consider the steps set out in the Committee’s report, which would reframe learning within the prison system.”

Sector Response

Francesca Cooney, Head of Policy at the Prisoners’ Education Trust, said:

“Today’s report is a call for immediate action from the Ministry of Justice. Prison education has been underfunded for many years and is at the bottom of the class when providing outcomes for prisoner learners.

“The report rightly states that prison education is in a ‘perilous state due to a continual decline in funding’ and calls on the Ministry of Justice to set out a budget for the next ten years by the end of the year. Without significant investment in the prison estate, in buildings, classrooms, equipment, teachers and technology, prisoners will not be able to get the skills and qualification that they need to find employment and turn their lives around.

“The Committee also notes that people are leaving prison without the digital skills they need for employment and life skills. The digital divide between prisoners and the community is ever increasing and the Committee is clear that we cannot let that continue. We strongly support the call for the Government to set a date for prisons to provide restricted broadband and for prisoners who are studying to have in-cell access to security-approved laptops.”

Peter Cox, managing director of prison education provider Novus, said:

“This welcome report by the Education Committee highlights how prison education enables prisoners to develop the skills they need to change their lives, and the vital role it can play in reducing the £15 billion-a-year cost of reoffending to taxpayers.

“However it also exposes the host of structural, bureaucratic, financial and cultural factors which currently prevent prison education from achieving the biggest possible impact. The report builds on the Prisons Strategy White Paper in setting out practical steps to overcome these obstacles. At present, 57% of adult prisoners have literacy levels below those expected of an 11-year-old. The report rightly spells out the need for greater investment in prison education if we are to help more prisoners to escape the cycle of reoffending. We support its pragmatic recommendations, which are consistent with the evidence Novus submitted to the Committee.

“As a national provider of prison education with a wealth of expertise developed through 30 years of working with the hardest-to-reach learners, Novus is well placed to support ministers and prison governors in achieving these goals. We are already active in engaging with employers such as Greene King, Kier and the Pret Foundation to offer routes from prison through to sustainable employment. In the last 12 months we have supported more than 1,400 prisoners into employment, education or training upon their release. And last year Novus invested £12.8 million in upgrading IT infrastructure across 43 prisons, with the aim of reducing the digital deficit of offenders. We are ready to play our part in building a Prison Education Service fit for the 21st century.”

David Hughes, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, said:

“Prison education is one of the most powerful tools available in the justice system to support offenders and reduce reoffending. When it doesn’t work it’s the public who suffer as well as the offenders. AoC welcomes the renewed focus this report brings to the changes needed in the prison system to help prison education be the real opportunity for change that it should be.

“Colleges are crucial to the success of a reformed system. Our sector vision for prison education is for a properly funded service to bring it into line with general further education and apprenticeships, as set out in the Skills for Jobs white paper, to provide prisoners with education and training which prepares them for successful reintegration into society and the world of work.

“This must, however, recognise that prisoners have often been failed by education first time around – with 40% having been excluded from school and half with a reading age of 11 on entry to prison. As a second chance to re-engage with learning, prisoners have additional support needs that must be accounted for and funded properly.”

Professor Tim Blackman, Vice-Chancellor, The Open University, said:

“We welcome the Committee’s recommendations on removing the six-year rule and supporting digital education for prisoners.

“As the primary provider of higher education in prisons and secure units in England and Wales, we have seen the life-changing impact that education can have on prisoners. Education is a powerful tool, as our students testify, and has proven impacts on reducing re-offending and helping prisoners find employment  

“With some changes, to student loan eligibility, the widening of the apprenticeship programme and better secure IT provision, so many more people within the justice system could benefit from higher education and be able to seize the transformational opportunities it provides.”

Stephen Akpabio-Klementowski, Regional Manager, Students in Secure Environments, The Open University, said:

“I gained three university degrees while in prison. Now I’m a lecturer and a regional manager for prisoner learning at The Open University all because I got an education while serving my sentence. I tell the prisoners I work with how important it is to get an education to help them bring about change in their lives. It’s not easy and there’s so much more prisons can do to truly become centres for rehabilitation.

“Evidence clearly shows that any form of learning can reduce reoffending upon release for many prisoners.”

Jane Hickie, Chief Executive of AELP:

“AELP welcomes the findings of the Education Select Committee inquiry into the adult prison education system and concurs completely with their view that the system needs overhauling. We were pleased to deliver evidence in front of the committee back in May 2021.

The government should take the committee’s recommendations on board swiftly and seek to improve access to high quality education and training for prisoners, ensure better portability of education between establishments, plus establish better links between prisons and employers. This will boost prisoners’ employability and wellbeing, as well as reduce the cost of reoffending.

However, the good news is that since the inquiry closed, the government has announced it intends to change the law so that prisoners could be offered the opportunity to take on apprenticeships. This is an issue that AELP campaigned over many years, as we know a prisoner apprenticeship pathway will create significant benefits for prisoners, former prisoners and employers.”

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