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Locked down, locked out of education
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Three months into the Covid lockdown, children in prison are still missing out on their education and urgent action is necessary.

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Education removed overnight

This is a guest post by Francesca Cooney, Head of Policy, Prisoners’ Education Trust.

A mandatory entitlement

Three months into the Covid lockdown, children in prison are still missing out on their education and urgent action is necessary.

In theory, children have a mandatory entitlement to education. During the Covid crisis, in the community children with key-working parents and vulnerable children have received taught education. The latter include those on the at-risk registers, those in care, and those with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP): many children in prison are in this category.

In the community, these children had an individual assessment to enable their attendance at education. In prisons, education was removed almost overnight.

A blanket ban on taught education for children in custody at this time is a direct consequence of decisions taken for adults being superimposed onto the children’s estate.

It is certainly not in children’s best interests. Withdrawing education provisions can have a significant impact on their wellbeing. Children are being locked up for significant periods and some have as little as 40 minutes a day out of their cells. This amounts to solitary confinement.

The damage done by social isolation

And it is hard to imagine how this time feels to children. Our sense of time speeds up as we age, so children experience the same time period as longer than adults do. Long periods of social isolation are damaging, risking long-term impact on some already traumatised children.

There have been some efforts made to support in-cell learning and we do not underestimate the work going into this.

Immediately after lockdown, education providers issued ‘distraction packs’ to all children. These included English and Maths workbooks, puzzles, and games. If children completed them, they were marked and given feedback. In the week or two following lockdown, more individualised, curriculum-based education packs were developed to support progression.

Children who are registered on a qualification are getting the relevant coursework, but are unlikely to be able to complete any practical assessments. We know that some work has been happening to support children taking their GCSEs, but we don’t know how many have been registered for exams and assessment this year.

There has been a glimmer of light with the announcement that tablets, currently being piloted in HMYOI Cookham Wood, will be rolled out to the other children’s prisons. These include a variety of education work and over 500 books.

Books on a prisoner's shelf
© Andy Aitchison

A poor substitute

But for children, in-cell activities and even digital technology are a poor substitute for classroom learning and engaging with teachers and peers. Children – especially those with disrupted, disjointed or even damaging prior experiences of education – need personal support and interaction to learn.

It’s not easy to socially distance in a prison but it is possible. In response to Covid, YOIs have organised children into groups of ‘mini households’ when they are out of cell, and most establishments have single room accommodation.

It would therefore be feasible to provide limited classes for smaller numbers, while maintaining appropriate safety measures and without incurring additional risks. Yet currently across the five children’s prisons, only HMP Parc is running two hours of face-to-face education daily.

When will education be back?

The Youth Custody Service (YCS) say they are keen to expand the regime as soon as it is safe to do so, and will be restarting education ‘over the coming weeks and months’. But children in prison deserve more than vague promises. The current restrictions are neither proportionate nor necessary.

Providing education would bring to children a partial sense of normality and routine, help the time to pass, and reduce social isolation. It is important that children in prison do not fall even further behind their peers in the community and can complete their education, including qualifications. This is fundamental to their life chances and their ability to move on with their lives successfully after leaving prison.


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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One Response

  1. Yeah but, no but, in theory, education is mandatory in youth custody?
    In practice like, “the needs of the child are paramount but, “will be taken into consideration” this just means “we aught to do something” maybe, if we can and it doesn’t cost anything, no never mind we’ll probably get away with it anyway”

    “Anyway, what’s the point most of “them” are functionally illiterate so wasting our time”

    But, the majority are NOT functionally and digitally illiterate if both websites and their display screens are Accessibility compliant with the WCAG 2.1/2 & ISO 30071.1.

    Non-readers exhibiting a high degree of “text avoidance” self-modify into portfolio builders once enabled to “access digital literacy” often with better reading rates and comprehension than the peers they left behind in school !

    Just heartbreaking that they were condemned to a future of revolving door custody accepting in due course far too many feel safer inside than on the streets……

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