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Unlocking potential – Coates prison education review published
Dame Sally Coates sets out her holistic vision for the future of prison education in her new report for Michael Gove at the MoJ.

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Unlocking potential

Today the MoJ published its review into prison education led by Dame Sally Coates.

Entitled “Unlocking potential – a review of education in prison“, the report has taken just over 8 months to produce and was tasked with investigating:

  • How the quality and methods of prison teaching can be improved including in classrooms and workshops,
  • How prisoners can be encouraged to positively engage with learning,
  • The potential for employers to advise on the curriculum to ensure that prisons offer the right courses and qualifications to enable prisoners to secure jobs on release.

So what’s the verdict?

Direct approach

Dame Sally is refreshingly direct in tone:

Recognition of the importance of education in prisons appears to have been lost. There are pockets of good practice, with examples of ’Outstanding’ education provision, but these are isolated. There does not appear to be any systematic way for prisons and Governors to learn from one another.

She (quite rightly in my opinion) argues that education is more than a service provided by OLASS providers in classrooms or workshops and that all areas of the prison regime should be considered suitable for learning. She sets out an holistic vision for prison education:

  • basic skills development in maths, English and ICT, through intensive courses, one-to-one support from other prisoners, or embedded in workshop or other work settings (e.g. kitchens and gardens);
  • high quality vocational training and employability skills that prepare individuals for jobs on release (e.g. through industrial work and training designed with and for employers);
  • Personal and Social Development (PSD), including behaviour programmes, family- and relationship-learning, and practical skills (e.g. parenting, finance, and domestic management);
  • proper support for the needs of prisoners with Learning Difficulties and Disabilities (LDD);
  • provision of arts, music and sport activities;
  • enterprise and self-employment support and training;
  • self-directed study;
  • learning facilitated by ICT, including distance-learning that can support qualifications from entry level up to degree level;
  • advice and guidance that ensures individuals make informed choices about education and future employment and career options; and
  • ‘through the gate’ support so that individuals can continue to progress through education, training and employment on release, and therefore avoid reoffending.

She illustrates this holistic approach by a wordle which illustrates all the different people who can impact on a prisoner’s education:

Coates review graphic


Dame Coates sets out 17 recommendations to achieve her objective of putting education at the heart of the regime, unlocking the potential in prisoners, and reducing reoffending:

  • Every prison must use a consistent and rigorous assessment mechanism to set a baseline against which to measure individuals’ academic performance and screen for learning difficulties and/or disabilities.
  • Every prisoner must have a Personal Learning Plan that specifies the educational activity that should be undertaken during their sentence. This should be in a consistent digital format that can follow the prisoner through the system if they move prisons.
  • A core set of educational performance measures should be used by all prisons. Such data should be monitored consistently to drive continuous improvement.
  • Ofsted should carry out inspections using the same framework as for the adult skills sector, with inspection intervals and follow-up arrangements driven by performance data and levels of performance.
  • HMIP (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons) should give prisons an overall performance measure, with educational performance (as measured by Ofsted) receiving a separate, distinct assessment. This will be made available to the Governor concerned much closer to the 25-day Ofsted timetable in its work in schools and colleges than currently. It should not be possible for a prison’s overall performance to be more than one grade higher than the measure awarded for its education provision.
  • Governors, senior leaders, teachers, prison officers, instructors and peer mentors must be given appropriate professional development to support them to deliver high quality education.
  • The recruitment of high quality teachers needs to be developed.
  • A new scheme to attract high calibre graduates to work in prisons for an initial period of two years should be introduced.
  • The current mechanism for funding prison education should be revised so that Governors and/or providers can design a curriculum that meets the individual needs and Personal Learning Plan of each prisoner for whom they are responsible.
  • Governors should be free to design a framework of incentives that encourage attendance and progression in education.
  • Governors and providers should begin from a planning assumption that there will be substantial numbers of prison learners who will have significant learning support needs. Every prison should adopt a whole-prison approach to identifying, supporting and working with prisoners with Learning Difficulties and Disabilities (LDD).
  • Governors should be able to use their education budgets to fund learning at Level 3 and above.
  • The planned investment in digital infrastructure should be used to enable more flexible learning across prisons.
  • The security arrangements that currently underpin the use of ICT in the prison estate should be reviewed. Governors should be allowed to develop an approach that allows suitably risk-assessed prison learners to have controlled access to the internet to support their studies and enable applications for jobs on release.
  • The roles and responsibilities of existing organisations supporting prisoners into employment should be reviewed with opportunities to rationalise these roles and responsibilities explored.
  • The government should continue to develop an approach that encourages and supports employers to work in prisons and to employ prisoners on release.
  • Reforms to prison education provision should be introduced in three phases, linked to wider prison reforms. As part of this, the current OLASS contracts should be extended up to August 2017.


Well, this appears to be a comprehensive and ambitious programme and Dame Coates sets out a three-phase timetable for its implementation with phase one already under way.

However, it’s hardly cost neutral and we need to wait and see what level of resources Mr Gove can negotiate and whether the MoJ and NOMS can recruit sufficient prison officers to re-establish a safe enough working environment for these reforms to work.

About Dame Sally Coates

Sally CoatesDame Sally has spent her professional life in education, she is perhaps best known for becoming principal at Burlington Danes Academy in White City, West London and turning it around, taking it out of special measures. In summer 2014, she “defected” to become Director of Academies south for rival United Learning.

She started the review into prison education in September 2015 and the report was published on 18 May 2016.

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