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Moving prison education up the agenda
Francesca Cooney of the Prisoners' Education Trust sets out a clear agenda for the future of prison education.

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A new prisoner education service

This is a guest post by Francesca Cooney of the Prisoners’ Education Trust

In December, the government published the Prisons Strategy White Paper, setting out their plans for prisons for the next ten years. Along with a significant prison-building programme, and increased security measures, there is a clear focus on employability, to support prison leavers into jobs. As part of this, the government have also committed to a new Prisoner Education Service.

We have responded to the plans set out in the White Paper. In our submission, we call for: 

  • Education to have the same priority as employment and rehabilitation in prisons
  • Adjustments to the prison regime to facilitate education
  • The roll-out of digital technology to revolutionise education delivery and accessibility
  • Increased prison officer recruitment and training for prison officers with a focus on the value of education
  • A clearer vision and adequate funding for the Prisoner Education Service

Moving education up the agenda

 We welcome the focus on employability in the White Paper. However, education is the foundation for employment, and emphasis on the importance of education is not strong enough in the White Paper. There is evidence that prisoners who reported having a qualification were 15% less likely to be reconvicted in the year after release from custody than those with no qualifications. Many prisoners will not be ‘job ready’ without adequate education support. Education is generally good insurance against unemployment, even in difficult economic times.

Change in prison regimes

 We believe there needs to be a massive culture shift that places education at the core of prison regimes. That requires proper funding and the right structures to be in place to support education delivery.

Our experience demonstrates that learners value education that is relevant and practical, and teaching methods that are embedded in practical experience. Well-resourced classrooms and digital technology show learners that the prison is invested in education.

The prison culture needs to convey that education has the same status as work and workshops, including the same remuneration. Education in prison should not be treated as a transaction, a privilege or an optional extra.

Digital technology

Despite the ministerial commitment to in-cell technology in all closed prisons, implementation is too slow. Digital technology would enable learners to access materials and would support getting feedback and submitting assessments. In-cell technology would also enable a personalised education service and facilitate self-study, opening more course opportunities to people who would otherwise not be able to access courses at the right levels and subjects.

In addition, many people in prison do not have adequate digital literacy – we are concerned that learners cannot always access the essential digital skills support and qualifications needed for everyday life and for many jobs.

© Ian Cuthbert and Prisoners' Education Trust

Officer numbers

 Accessing education in some prisons is extremely difficult. Even before Covid, shortages of officers meant that learners could not always be escorted safely around the prison or moved from wing to activity. We are concerned that plans to increase the prison population will create even poorer outcomes in education as prisons struggle to provide access. There is already a shortage of prison officers. Recruitment and retention of officers must be a priority for HMPPS.

We support the commitment in the White Paper to “invest in staff training to build a prison culture that values education and learning across the prison”.  We would like the officer-training programme to have a stronger emphasis on supporting the vision of prisons as learning environments with education at their heart.

Vision and funding

The current plans for the Prisoner Education Service do not appear to include significant changes to the system.

Many people in prisons are known to have poor prior experiences of education. Creating a new Prisoner Education Service offers the opportunity to rebrand prison education departments as colleges and develop provision that is equivalent to the community, with GCSEs and A-levels as standard and more access to higher education.

While the White Paper commits specific amounts for other areas of prison activity, it is noticeable that there are none for education. Funding has not increased in seven years, leaving prison education poorly resourced.

We cannot have a quality Prisoner Education Service without additional funding. We will continue to monitor the plans for education as they develop and will be advocating in particular for adequate resources.

Next steps

The government will be setting out further plans for prisons soon. Education in prisons can give individuals the skills they need to unlock their potential, gain employment, and become assets to their communities.

The White Paper provides the opportunity to make the massive changes needed – but without the right funding and facilities, it will be a massive opportunity lost.

You can read our full response to the White Paper here.


Thanks to Rebecca Radmore and Prisoners’ Education Trust for kind permission to use the header image in this post.

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