What’s needed to reform prison education?

19th May 2016

The Queen’s Speech included some bold proposals for prison reform which look consistent with Micharl Gove’s thinking when he was at education – freedom to prison governors sounds familiar in a world of academisation. Perhaps not so familiar is the welcome focus on better use of technology in learning and iPads for prisoners which was never a great priority for the then Education Secretary. 

My involvement with prisons started in the early 2000s when the Learning and Skills Council were handed the funding for the Offender Learning and Skills Service (OLASS). I’ve always been impressed with the dedication, skills and perseverance of adult and further education staff, but the people I met delivering prisoner education were of a different order. Their work was always against all odds, with the arcane rules of the funding system compounded by the rules, regulations and disciplines of complex prison communities. 

Put together, those rules and regulations led to less time for learning than needed, a terrible lack of continuity preventing completions and horribly inadequate facilities and resources. All too often, in my experience, the education service in a prison was not valued and embedded in the cultire of the prison. The exceptions were inspiring and required the right prison governor with the right head of learning and skill inside working with the college leading the OLASS contract. All focused on helping offenders get the right skills they needed and wanted.

In those prisons we supported invested in some great approached to education which was motivating and attractive because it clearly gave offenders the skills they knew would help them find work on the outside. Despite this, though, the OLASS funding rules could still get in the way of what people wanted and needed.

We’re working now on using our Citizens’ Curriculum in prisons to move away from a singular focus on low level qualifications. We are supporting delivery of a motivating and engaging first step into learning for offenders who need basic literacy, numeracy and digital skills. It will be exciting to use this with the six pilots which are sensibly being set up across the country. 

I’m pleased that Sally Coates recognised the power of governors to lead a positive culture because I do think that is essential. Essential but not sufficient: the funding is not sufficient, the facilities are inadequate, the continuity within a sentence is hard to achieve and the through-the-gate issues are highly complex. 

So, there is a lot to do to get this right, but great news that we have six places to experiment, innovate and evaluate what works before the approach is spread. Learning and Work Institute will be working hard to support the changes and help spread the learning.