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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Justice Secretary prioritises prison education

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"We must be more demanding of our prisons, and more demanding of offenders, making those who run our prisons both more autonomous and more accountable while also giving prisoners new opportunities by expecting them to engage seriously and purposefully in education and work."

Treasure in the heart of every man

Michael Gove made his first big speech on prisons as Justice Secretary at an event at the Prisoner Learning Alliance yesterday (17 July).

Using language very different from his predecessor, Chris Grayling, Mr Gove made an apparently heart-felt plea to transform prisons. Quoting from the Gospel and Winston Churchill, he spoke of

[alert-announce]”finding the treasure in the heart of every man”[/alert-announce]

Pleasingly, the Justice Secretary claimed that he wanted to progress slowly, basing new initiatives on evidence and piloting new approaches – a contrast with the overtly political approach to criminal justice of the coalition government.

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Education, Education, Education

After an analysis of the main problems current facing prisons and prisoners – Victorian jails, high levels of violence, the prevalence of drugs especially synthetic cannabinoids/legal highs, the damaging and deprived backgrounds from which most inmates come – Mr Gove set his primary policy objective of improving prison education.

The Justice Secretary accepted that prison education is currently poor, with Ofsted inspections finding under performance in a majority of establishments and the Chief Inspector of Prisons saying that too many prisoners spend too much time in their cells.

He set as a priority ensuring that offenders become literate and numerate to make them employable. He argued that getting poorly-educated adults to a basic level of literacy and numeracy is straightforward and that

[alert-announce]”the failure to teach our prisoners a proper lesson is indefensible.”[/alert-announce]

Mr Gove diagnosed the problem as not having the right incentives for prisoners to learn nor for prison staff to prioritise education.

He is considering incentivising prisoners by making release conditional on “commitment to serious educational activity” and a changed attitude, an approach he termed “earned release”.

He aims to get prisons to prioritise education by giving governors the autonomy to organise prison education as they see fit and opening up the market to new providers. The fact that most of the current prison education (OLASS) contracts come to an end in Summer 2016 makes this feasible.

The Justice Secretary argued that a more rigorous assessment of prisoners’ educational abilities on reception would allow him to make governors accountable for their improvement on release. (Do I smell a payment by results approach?)

This was a passionate speech and it will be interesting to see if sufficient funds can be found to realise Mr Gove’s aim:

[alert-announce]”We must be more demanding of our prisons, and more demanding of offenders, making those who run our prisons both more autonomous and more accountable while also giving prisoners new opportunities by expecting them to engage seriously and purposefully in education and work.”[/alert-announce]

 

 

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