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Leadership in Prison Education: Meeting the challenges of the new system

Prisoner Learning Alliance
The Prisoner Learning Alliance explores the challenges of the new prison education commissioning system.

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Leadership in prison education

This is a guest blog by Francesca Cooney of the Prisoner Learning Alliance.

The Prisoner Learning Alliance, a coalition of organisations and individuals working together to improve prison education, has published a report on leadership – after the introduction of the most significant changes to prison education for decades last April.

Based on interviews with over 50 staff in ten prisons, the report explores the challenges governors and senior staff are facing in leading and managing prison education, in the light of the new contracting and commissioning arrangements.

Voices rarely heard in research

For the report, we spoke to governors, heads of learning and skills, and education managers (employed by the education providers) – voices rarely heard in research. Based on their insights, we have identified how leaders can develop a whole prison education culture, which would engage learners and all staff working in the prison. The research looks at ways governors show their commitment to education, how prisons can fully integrate it, and how other staff, including prison officers and workshop instructors, can support its delivery.

Governor autonomy: more rhetoric than reality

 The report is being published at a crucial time, as major changes to the system are having a significant impact. The reforms brought in last year aimed to deliver proposals put forward in the 2016 Coates report for governors to have responsibility for prison education. However, we found that governor autonomy over education was still more theory than reality. While governors have more of a say in who provides education in their prison, and more input into monitoring this, there are complex regional governance structures that restrict their influence.

Staff underprepared for additional demands

One of the key findings in the report is that many staff were underprepared for the additional demands of the new commissioning arrangements. Senior staff responsible for education had found their workload and responsibilities increased, and they had not always had the training or support they needed. Staff identified managing the contract as the key challenge for them, and highlighted understanding contracts, writing bids, finance management, and monitoring and interpreting data as skills they needed to develop.

Senior managers without an education background

We also found that many senior managers with responsibility for prison education do not have an education background. Instead, they may have previously run a different department in the prison or had an administrative role. The new contracting arrangements have created additional, often complex technical responsibilities. Under the new arrangements, staff are asked to evaluate and monitor the quality of education, including assessing teaching. Staff identified curriculum development, assessing teaching quality and understanding the needs of specific groups of learners as skills they now needed to develop.

Leadership underdeveloped in prison education

Overall, we found that leadership is underdeveloped in prison education. Although there are some good training opportunities, these are not systematically rolled out, and do not start early enough in people’s careers. Encouragingly, though, we found that prison education leaders are keen to learn and keen to engage with organisations outside prison, especially further education colleges. This could support senior prison staff to developed, through training and dialogue but would also impact on learners education by opening up opportunities. Based on the findings in this report, the PLA calls for investment and resources to support effective professional development and to establish the conditions that allow for learning and culture change.

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