Education Select Committee inquiry
In the light of Ofsted’s critical annual report, the Education Select Committee’s new inquiry into prison education is a chance to ask for long-needed improvements, says Francesca Cooney from Prisoners’ Education Trust.
In November, the Education Select Committee launched a new inquiry, asking ‘are prisoners being left behind?’ – the first to look into prison education for 15 years. Judging by Ofsted’s annual report, published earlier this month, the answer to the inquiry’s question is a resounding yes. Of the 32 prisons and Young Offender Institutions inspected for their education, skills and work provision before the lockdown in March, only nine were judged to be good – and no education, work and skills in prisons was considered outstanding. It is worth comparing this figure with further education in the community, where 8 out of 10 providers are judged good or outstanding.
The Ofsted report follows a year of massive change in prison education – with new ways of funding education, more Governor input, and new contracts. Yet, overall, Ofsted inspectors found that just 16% of prisons had improved their education delivery. Conversely, nearly half (48%) had stayed the same and, even more worryingly, over a third (35%) had got worse.
It is really disappointing that after such a massive shake-up of the system the situation for learners is still not improving. The report goes on to show that only a third of prisons had a good enough curriculum, which actually met learners’ needs. Many prisons struggle to get people to classes, with punctuality and attendance again criticised by Ofsted.
In addition, in some prisons only around half of prisoners were having their progress recorded, with their efforts not recognised – unsurprisingly leading to demotivation. Too many prisons were found not to offer the right advice and guidance to support learners to find work or training, or to carry on studying after leaving prison.
So the Education Select Committee inquiry could not come at a better time. There is an urgent need to highlight the difficulties that prisoners are facing accessing education, never more so than during the current restrictions.
During most of lockdown, keeping education going has been considered a national priority by the government. Colleges and schools have been expected to stay open, sometimes controversially. The situation has been completely different for prisoners. Face-to-face education was withdrawn overnight, with education providers not classed as key workers or as providing an essential service. This has meant that in adult prisons, the vast majority of learners have had no face-to-face education for nine months and counting. Only a tiny handful of prisons have been able to provide some direct tuition to small groups.
The impact on prisoners has been even more savage because of the lack of digital technology in prisons. The means of communication and connectivity that we are all so used to now are simply not available. While community education providers have moved their courses online and moved to blended learning models, combining online and class based teaching, this hasn’t been possible in prisons.
So one of the areas Prisoners’ Education Trust will be asking the Select Committee to review has to be digital technology. This would transform prison education and prison life more generally. We are advocating for in-cell technology, so that learners have every opportunity to study and make the best use of their time inside. Ideally, this would also link into hub services so that people can manage more aspects of their lives themselves.
And it looks like the Committee are starting off in the right place. Its Chair, the Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, has said,
“Education clearly has a key tool to play in making prison work and ensuring custody is effective. We must make sure access to training and education is a priority, aiding the rehabilitation process and giving prisoners the tools to improve their lives.”
A wide remit
The inquiry has a wide remit, starting from the purpose of prison education. They are looking at children, young adults, and adult learners in prison, as well as all areas of education and training, including the possibility of apprenticeships for prisoners. They are also interested in whether additional learning needs are properly supported by the prison education and youth custody systems.
What makes this inquiry so important is that, rather than looking at students through a prison lens, it is looking at prisoners through an education lens. It is a vital distinction: it means the Committee will be looking at what education is provided in the community and how prison compares. When we are absorbed and immersed in the challenge of providing services to people in prison, it can be difficult to remember that there are different (and often better!) standards in the community.
The inquiry presents an opportunity to say that if education is a priority in the community, it should be one in custody too. And that people who have not always been able to attend school or college growing up deserve the chance to get an education now. People in our prisons need opportunities to achieve qualifications, learn new skills, develop confidence, and work to a better future.
This inquiry offers a rare chance for people in prison, and organisations like ours, to make our views known – to seek real improvements in education provision and drive for outcomes that will benefit learners and our wider community.
Share your views
The Education Select Committee are accepting written submissions until 8th January, but will take submissions from people in prison until mid-February.
There is more information about the inquiry and the terms of reference here. If you have any questions, please do contact Francesca at Prisoners’ Education Trust on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to Ian Cuthbert of PET for permission to use the images in this post.