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Prison education “a work in progress”
Prisoner Learning Alliance assesses the progress of the reform of prison education so far.

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In May 2016, Dame Sally Coates published her influential review – Unlocking Potential, which set out a holistic vision for prison education. Following publication of the report, the government accepted the main recommendations in principle. However changes in government and administration meant that a detailed implementation plan was not published.

Earlier this month, the Prisoner Learning Alliance published a briefing which assessed how the progress to date of the prison education reforms.

The PLA briefing notes that the Prison Safety and Reform White Paper in November 2016 drew heavily on the Coates Report and plans were made for hugely significant changes in the way prison education was funded and
governed. Governors identified the education provision they required and prisons were divided into ‘lots’ (groups of prisons, usually by geographical area). The PEF (Prison Education Framework) contracts were awarded to deliver core education provision. The DPS (Dynamic Purchasing System) was also introduced for governors to commission smaller bespoke education services.

The briefing summarises progress on the main recommendations of the Coates Review and finds, overall, that
fair progress has been made in some major areas. However, it is too soon to assess the effectiveness of the new funding arrangements and the new contracts that underpin them. The Prisoners’ Education Trust is currently collating evidence from those providers who used the DPS and their findings should make for interesting reading.

The PLA briefing takes a scorecard approach, rating progress on 16  of Coates’ principal recommendations on a three point scale where three is the top score. Their assessment is summarised below: 


  1. Every prison must use a consistent and rigorous assessment mechanism to set a baseline against which to measure individuals’ academic performance and screen for learning difficulties and/or disabilities (LDD). Score: 1/3.
  2. Every prisoner must have a Personal Learning Plan that specifies the educational activity that should be undertaken during their sentence. This should be in a consistent digital format that can follow the prisoner through the system if they move prisons. Score: 1/3.
  3. A core set of educational performance measures should be used by all prisons. Such data should be monitored consistently to drive continuous improvement. Score: 1/3.
  4. Ofsted should carry out inspections using the same framework as for the adult skills sector, with inspection intervals and follow-up arrangements driven by performance data and levels of performance. Score: 2/3.
  5. HMIP should give prisons an overall performance measure, with educational performance (as measured by Ofsted) receiving a separate, distinct assessment. This will be made available to the Governor concerned much closer to the 25-day Ofsted timetable in its work in schools and colleges than currently. It should not be possible for a prison’s overall performance to be more than one grade higher than the measure awarded for its education provision. Score: 2/3.
  6. Governors, senior leaders, teachers, prison officers, instructors and peer mentors must be given appropriate professional development to support them to deliver high quality education. Score: 1/3.
  7. The recruitment of high quality teachers needs to be developed. Score: 1/3.
  8. A new scheme to attract high calibre graduates to work in prisons for an initial period of two years should be introduced. Score: 2/3.
  9. The current mechanism for funding prison education should be revised so that Governors and/or providers can design a curriculum that meets the individual needs and Personal Learning Plan of each prisoner for whom they are responsible. Score: 3/3.
  10. Governors should be free to design a framework of incentives that encourage attendance and progression in education. Score: 1/3.
  11. Governors and providers should begin from a planning assumption that there will be substantial numbers of prison learners who will have significant learning support needs. Every prison should adopt a whole-prison approach to identifying, supporting and working with prisoners with Learning Difficulties and Disabilities (LDD). Score: 1/3.
  12.  Governors should be able to use their education budgets to fund learning at Level 3 and above. Score: 2/3.
  13. The planned investment in digital infrastructure should be used to enable more flexible learning across prisons. Score: 1/3.
  14. The security arrangements that currently underpin the use of ICT in the prison estate should be reviewed. Governors should be allowed to develop an approach that allows suitably risk-assessed prison learners to have controlled access to the internet to support their studies and enable applications for jobs on release. Score: 1/3.
  15. The roles and responsibilities of existing organisations supporting prisoners into employment should be reviewed with opportunities to rationalise these roles and responsibilities explored. Score: 1/3.
  16. The government should continue to develop an approach that encourages and supports employers to work in prisons and to employ prisoners on release. Score: 2/3.


Three years on, prison education reform remains a work in progress and the ambitious vision in the Coates Report has not yet been fully realised. The PLA will continue to monitor progress on the recommendations and plan a further update to this briefing in May 2020. 

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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