"Dismal and chaotic"
Prison education is, according to the Chair of the Education Select Committee, “dismal” and “in a chaotic state”. These observations were based on the Committee’s new report into education and support for learners in prison, published last month.
This report is just the latest to highlight the failures of current prison education provision. Last year the Government’s own Prisons Strategy White Paper described education as “not good enough”, while Ofsted has said that it is “extremely poor”. Around 60% of all prisons are assessed by Ofsted as “requires improvement” or “inadequate”, while the equivalent figure in other parts of the further education and skills sector is just 20%.
None of this will be news to anyone who has been involved in prison education in recent years. While there are pockets of excellent and innovative practice, and prison teachers work hard to do the best that they can with the time and resources available, it is widely recognised that prison education is nowhere near as good as it could and should be.
The Education Select Committee’s inquiry therefore covered well-trodden ground, highlighting failures that were evident in Dame Sally Coates’ landmark 2016 review and have not been addressed in the intervening years.
There is nonetheless much to welcome in its report.
First, the Committee is clear that prison education is chronically underfunded – they state that it is in “a perilous state due to a continual decline in funding” – and that addressing this is essential if the necessary improvements are going to be made. Prisons are a challenging environment to work in and good-quality education cannot be provided with the funding that is currently available. A significant increase is long overdue.
Second, the Committee recommends that there should be a focus on embedding a “culture of education” into prisons. There are undoubtedly challenges with this. Prisons are complex environments and prison governors will always focus first on security and keeping prisoners safe. Too often they don’t have the staff or resources that they need. But it is nonetheless important that education is seen as a priority and that prisons take whatever steps they can to support its delivery. This includes, for example, considering what incentives there are to participate in education and how they could be improved.
Third, the report highlights the lack of access to laptops or other digital devices within prison and the problems that this creates for education provision. In-cell technology and safe and secure access to the internet should become the norm across the prison estate, both as a learning tool and to give people the digital skills that they will need on release. The further that prisons fall behind what we all have access to in the community, the more difficult it will be to catch up.
Fourth, the report rightly draws attention to the lack of support for people with additional learning needs. Data shows that nearly a third of prisoners have a learning difficulty or learning challenges, and if anything this is likely to be a significant underestimate. As well as getting screening and assessment right so those with additional needs are correctly identified, the report’s recommendation that every prison has a Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator could help learners to get the support that they need.
A broader curriculum needed
Fifth, the report recognises that the current provision of education in prison is too narrow. It’s right that education in prison covers basic literacy and numeracy skills – more than half of the people in prison have English and Maths levels at or below those expected of an eleven-year-old – but a broader curriculum is needed. This should include GCSEs and A-levels, and a broad range of vocational opportunities, but also art, music and other creative subjects, which can both engage people with learning and have broader benefits to wellbeing.
Finally, the report sets out a number of further barriers to the successful delivery of prison education that need to be addressed if quality is to improve. These include the physical state of the prison estate, where classrooms are too often in an unacceptable state; the organisation of the prison day, which can work against the effective delivery of education; and prisoner transfers, which can see people moved when they are part way through a course that is not available in the prison they are being sent to.
What needs to happen next?
This report is well timed. The Ministry of Justice and HM Prisons and Probation Service have just begun the process of deciding what will follow the current Prison Education Framework contracts, through which core education provision in prisons is delivered. This will be a lengthy process – the new contracts are not likely to be active until April 2025 – but it is also an opportunity to get education provision right, an opportunity that was largely missed when the current contracts were agreed in 2018 in the wake of the Coates Review.
But these new contracts are not the whole answer. As the Education Select Committee’s report recognises, prison education is not delivered in a vacuum and broader reforms to prisons, regimes and staffing are needed. Alongside additional funding for education provision, there needs to be investment in improving crumbling classrooms, in creating positive and constructive regimes, and in increasing staffing levels. People cannot take part in education if there is nobody to unlock them from their cells and bring them down to the classrooms.
As this report shows, prison education is currently bottom of the class, languishing far behind the equivalent provision in the community. Yet we know that education can be the key to people in prison securing employment on release and to reducing reoffending. The Ministry of Justice knows this, and they know that the current arrangements are not working. They must now take immediate action to ensure that people in prison can access high-quality education that will help them to turn their lives around.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.