Reforming Britain’s prisons

Justice Secretary Michael Gove is embarking on perhaps the most substantive prison education reform programme for a generation. The changing agenda has both challenges and opportunities for external stakeholders. They will likely have the opportunity to influence the future of the prison education. However, there will be potential risks and the process will make long-term planning difficult.

The centerpiece to Gove’s programme is the soon to be published Coates Review of education in prisons. The review, led by Dame Sally Coates, seeks to develop a more holistic vision for prisoner education, establishing the scope, quality and effectiveness of current education provision in prisons and Young Offender Institutions holding young adults.

Importantly, it will also open up space to discuss new and challenging models of education in prisons and reaffirm how education may contribute to rehabilitation. In particular, there are three areas where providers should look to shape the agenda and ensure that a reformed prison system is fit for purpose.

Developing a universal basic skills programme and education pathway

As research by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Probation and Ofsted has found: “too few (prisoners) experienced a sequenced and focused approach that would enable them to progress to higher level learning in an area that would help them to access further training or employment on release.”

A new approach is needed to ensure that all prisoners are equipped with the basic level of literacy and numeracy required to get onto the job ladder. However, this must not be an end in itself, but rather part of a wider education framework. By offering access to a relevant standard of education and a track towards further qualifications, prisoners can be incentivised to fulfil their potential and secure employment upon their release.

Education should not be limited to class room learning, but incorporate as broad a curriculum as possible to encourage and sustain aspiration. This may include vocational training, access to careers guidance services and, where appropriate, community work programmes or long-term apprenticeship schemes.

Improving opportunities for specialists

In 2014, Ofsted reported that education levels across the British prison system were inadequate and suggested that “very few prisoners are getting the opportunity to develop the skills and behaviours they need for work.” Between 2011/12 and 2013/14 the number of prisoners achieving a level 1 or 2 qualification in Mathematics fell by a third, and since 2010 the number of prisoners studying for an Open University degree has dropped by 37%: clearly indicating the need for substantive reform.

Less tangible, but no less important, the limitations of prisoner education are a missed opportunity for fundamental human improvement in raising the aspirations of offenders and leveraging the justice system as a conduit to a better society. Too often the prison system fails to equip offenders with the tools needed to build fulfilling lives upon their release.

A new perspective is required to engage organisations and their experiences, and create a more flexible prison system. This is a unique opportunity for providers to exert influence and shape the education and training agenda.

Building links between prisoners and the community

Education in prisons is generally administered in isolation with limited interaction afforded between prisoners and the wider community. This helps to create a sense of detachment from society at large. The result is institutionalisation and an inability for prisoners to feel at one with, or contribute to, society at large.

A systemic failure of the criminal justice system has been its inability to create structures that both punish crime and provide a route for offenders to reengage with society. Too often offenders are unable to develop their potential as citizens and contribute accordingly. By repairing links between prisons, prisoners and civic society it may be possible to improve integration and break vicious cycles. This will only be achieved through cooperation between the public, private and third sectors, reflecting an urgent need for refreshed engagement across all levels of government.

Reforming the prison system is not a task that will be easy, nor one that will be quick. To ensure its long-term success it is vital that education and skills providers’ voices are heard and that the government develops forums through which ideas can be shared. For too long talent, resources and time have been wasted through mismanagement and poor provision. Now is the time to reverse this and ensure that the justice system delivers rehabilitation and improved outcomes.

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