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Education and employment in Future Prisons
Latest post on the RSA FuturePrison project sets out key ways in which the quality of education and work in prisons could be substantially improved.

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This is the fourth in a short series of posts on the RSA’s Future Prison project which sets out a blueprint for the modernisation of our prison system.

The state of prison education

The latest HM Inspection of Prisons report, published in 2015, concluded that education in prison needed to be given a higher priority in response to ‘dismal’ learning outcomes noted by the inspectors. The report states that purposeful activity, which includes work, training and education, had the worst outcomes in 10 years and that purposeful activity was only good or very good in a quarter of prisons.

While there are examples of outstanding good practice (such as HMP Hollesley), the quality, consistency and accessibility of prison education provision has for a long time been caught in a deadlock with providers arguing that they cannot access people, or the right people, to fill classrooms, and prison leaders often unable to respond to these issues or shape contracts.

A review of basic skills found that many people in custody are doing irrelevant qualifications and being required to repeat courses (to the benefit of providers and at a cost to the tax payer) and that governors are largely unaware of, and have little input into, what happens in their classrooms.

The latest Bromley Briefing also reported that the number of people achieving level 1 or 2 qualifications (GCSE level) has plummeted — falling by 37% in English and 34% in Maths between the 2011–12 and 2014–15 academic years.


Work in prison

Prisons provide a range of employment opportunities. Some of these jobs may be ‘core’ prison work such as cleaning, catering and peer roles.
Others will be delivered as contracts through One3One solutions, a part of the Ministry of Justice, which has 450 different contracts within the estate.

There is concern about the limited extent to which these contracts are able to provide ‘real world’ skills, and the tendency for too many contracts to involve very low skill activities that provide cheap labour but do not enhance employability. In addition, a substantial amount of any profits do not stay local so cannot be reinvested in the prison.

Of course, there are many governors who forge their own relationships with employers. Some of this provides good examples of partnership
working (for example the work done by Timpson and the likes of Summit media, which until recently worked with HMP Humber and employs people on release).

There are also examples like the Clink restaurants but even the best of these would probably agree that at the very least partnership working
with employers could be made easier.

The Future Prison project intends to build on the education review recently completed by Dame Sally Coates and learn more about the kinds of strategies most likely to engage employers at scale and on an ethical and sustainable basis for all concerned.

Prisoners working in the kitchen of a prison
Prisoners working in the kitchen of a prison

Key questions

The RSA report sets out a number of key questions which will attempt to answer in respect to employment and education in prisons of the future:

  • How can we relate the arrangements for work and education as closely as possible to the furtherance of rehabilitation?
  • How would the rehabilitative not for profit prison support progress in education and employment?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of current commissioning arrangements and how could greater governor autonomy change this for the better?
  • What approaches in both education and employment best meet the needs identified in the education review: rigour, improving basics and enabling aspiration and progression (including when people move)?
  • What role do employer partnerships have to play and how should they be structured to best support real work skills development and future employment?
  • Is there a role for apprenticeships and other forms of vocational training at scale and how can these be linked to local employers and education providers?
  • What are the ethical considerations in relation to employment in prison and how can these drive change?
  • How can the workforce and the families of those in custody benefit from new approaches to education and employment?
  • What role do social enterprises and business have to play in supporting those who may never be able or willing to work for an employer?


The importance of education and employment on reducing reoffending is not disputed; we need to ensure that our prisons integrate effective ETE provision into the every day life of all prisoners.

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2 Responses

  1. Great article but only just scratches the surface of the problem. Major issue is the educational contracts NOMS has agreed to over the course of the past few yrs. OLASS 4 in particular was very detrimental. Cutting of funding for anything over level 2 was remarkably stupid. HMP should be throwing money at anyone who wants to getter themselves through education all the way to degree level and beyond. Technology access needs to improve. People need access to computers in cells to study and access to online resources as well. The crappy thing currently in place for resettlement and online access is beyond pathetic and a total waste of money and resources as in every prison I was in it either wasn’t set up (ESP) or didn’t work (Holloway) or wasn’t accessible and didn’t work (Downview).

    Prison jobs are pathetic and make work stuff that provide no real world skills at all or else it’s cheap labour like packing headphones for Virgin Airlines in plastic bags that also provides no real world skills. Apprenticeships is one way to go but the use of ROTL to facilitate these needs to increase dramatically and ROTL levels are still way down from before Grayling was at the MoJ.

    In fact the only way to really address things is to develop tailor made programmes for each inmate which follow them from prison to prison and which actually provide them with a decent education and decent transferable job skills. But that would require serious investment in terms of $$ and people and the MoJ simply isn’t going to do that.

    1. Thanks for your first hand knowledge, Alison. We shall see if Mr Gove is still in place by the end of the week and, if he is, how he goes about implementing Coates and trying to get proper work opportunities into prison.
      Best Wishes

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