First published in TES:
It is a stark reality that many people who end up in custody faced a challenging start to education and disruption to their school lives. Almost a quarter of those in prison have spent time in care, while nearly one-third have declared learning difficulties and 42 per cent have been excluded from school.
With more than 50 per cent of people across the prison estate assessed as having primary school levels of literacy and numeracy, many prisoners have fallen behind when it comes to education.
That is why, as part of the House of Commons Education Committee's continuing commitment to left-behind groups, we are examining prison education and how it can better deliver the skills needed by people in custody to help them reform and rebuild their lives.
Our inquiry has already received written submissions from those with a wide experience of the system – from prison charities and academics, through to education providers and former prisoners. On 25 May, we continue taking evidence with a session with Bounce Back, Nacro and the St Giles Trust, three organisations working with people inside prison and in the community, having already heard from Dame Sally Coates, who in 2016 led an independent review into prison education.
Dame Sally’s review advocated a greater role for prison governors, including giving them new autonomy in providing education and holding them to account for the educational progress of all prisoners in their jails. We heard during the session of the limited progress that has been made in implementing her recommendations and the continuing need for a huge cultural shift to boost education in prisons.
Since her review, new arrangements have been brought in by the government, with four providers now delivering education in custody at a cost of £125 million a year. But with Ofsted’s latest annual report revealing that two-thirds of inspections show poor management of education and skills in prisons, it is little surprise that Dame Sally told us that prison education is not providing value for money and needs to be "dramatically rethought".
As we move through the inquiry, we will be focusing on areas that can make a real difference to education in prisons and how it can be put at the very heart of custodial settings.
Firstly, there needs to be a drive to get the latest data on what is happening with education in prisons. A lot of what we know about the educational attainment of prisoners would seem to be quite out of date, and it would be useful to know more about how progress and outcomes are being measured for those in custody.
We also want to know how prisoners with low educational attainment can be incentivised and supported to address their skills deficits and how those in custody can take advantage of the incredible opportunity that apprenticeships can provide. More must be done to prepare and move those leaving custody into jobs, with the latest figures showing that just 12 per cent of prisoners were in employment six weeks after release. The employment rates for female prisoners are even worse. One idea, put forward by the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, would be to give employers the option to gift unspent levy funds to finance apprenticeships in custody. There also could be greater use made of Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) to help prisoners start that new chapter in their lives at the tail end of their sentence.
There also needs to be ways of better supporting those with special educational needs and disabilities. Often prisoners with additional learning needs are not identified, and prison staff are not trained or directed to ensure proper assessment and provide the required support to individuals through the process.
Resourcing is also an issue. Many submissions to our inquiry highlight that the range of educational resources available to meet prisoners’ learning needs is limited and does not reflect the resources available to either educators or learners beyond prison walls.
The lack of IT in many prisons has made adapting education services and supporting distance learning more challenging, shining a spotlight on the divide between education and learning in the community and in prison. Some quick wins seem possible. Adjusting the prison regime and enabling greater access to IT, whilst at the same time maintaining safeguards, could make a real difference in the training-to-work journey.
Education should be life-changing in making prison work and ensuring that time in custody is effective. We must make sure that access to training and education is made a priority, aiding the rehabilitation process and giving prisoners the tools to get on. Only then will they be able to climb the educational ladder of opportunity to improve their lives.