Memorandum of Evidence
House of Commons
Education & Skills Committee
This document is the Evidence of the Forum on Prisoner Education,
submitted 15th June 2004. For further information, or clarification
on any of the information herein, please contact:
Steve Taylor - Coordinator of the Forum on Prisoner Education
Forum on Prisoner Education, PO Box 42039, London. E5 0YZ
Tel: 020 8525 9599 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: www.fpe.org.uk
NB: Further copies of this document can be downloaded
1. The Forum on Prisoner Education was founded in 2000 to
'increase the quality, availability and consistency of education
and training within the criminal justice system'. We believe that
education in prisons should be centred on the needs of the individual
prisoner, for whom it can hold the key to living without crime
by building self-esteem, encouraging self-motivation, and providing
new opportunities after release.
2. The Forum on Prisoner Education is a membership organisation,
with members drawn from a range of backgrounds. A significant
number work in prisoner education; others include campaigners
and members of the voluntary sector, academics, parliamentarians,
and current and former prisoners.
3. We welcome the attention to be given to this important
issue by the Committee. Whilst we have limited our evidence to
the specific issues identified as being of interest to the Committee,
we would welcome the opportunity to discuss any aspect of prisoner
education relevant to the Committee's work.
The Assessment of Prisoners' Needs on Conviction
4. National Standards for Pre-Sentence Reports have, since
2000, required that each report will 'contain an offender assessment
which shall state the offender's status in relation to literacy
and numeracy'. We welcome this new importance being attached to
education, and recognition of its central role in sentencing practice.
5. Soon after reception into prison, the new prisoner will
undergo an educational assessment. The Forum on Prisoner Education
has expressed significant concern over these assessments (copies
of which are available from the Forum), in that they test ability
only up to Basic Skills Level 1. We believe that the Offenders'
Learning & Skills Unit at the DfES should implement a range
of assessments to enable prison education tutors to accurately
gauge any learning needs the prisoner may have.
6. Contractors and education staff and management have expressed
significant concern over the funding of the assessment process.
For example, High Down prison in Surrey can receive as many as
267 new prisoners each month. Their budget only allows for 500
hours of education induction, leaving prisoners with a ten minute
induction period. This is clearly unacceptable, especially in
the case of prisoners with complex educational needs.
7. When talking of 'needs', we need to consider motivation.
Very many prisoners have had negative experiences of formal education,
and simply shutting them in a classroom is unlikely to have any
positive effect. In assessing 'needs', an assessment should be
made of the styles of learning likely to work for that prisoner.
For prisoners with negative experiences of education, distance
and flexible learning (such as in-cell) can offer an effective
means of learning and we believe that more should be done to explore
and encourage non-traditional learning methods in prisons. A great
deal of success has been achieved by literate prisoners teaching
other prisoners to read and write - through schemes such as Toe
by Toe run by The Shannon Trust. Learning is best achieved
through personal experiences and thus workshops and education
should be linked. Much in the way of communication and mathematics
can be achieved through activities in the workshop.
8. Allied to motivation, we need to recognise that may prisoners'
lives have been chaotic and disruptive. Very low self-esteem is
common, and education must be 'sold' to many of these prisoners.
Prisoners need to be encouraged to learn, and shown that they
can learn, and can change and enrich their lives
9. Educational needs cannot - and should not - be separated
from a wider needs assessment. A significant number of prisoners
have a history of substance misuse; many have mental health problems;
and few have a job or home to go to on release. Education must
be an integral part of an holistic approach to assessing and resolving
The Effectiveness of Local Contracting Arrangements
10. Since its creation in 2000, the Forum on Prisoner Education
has consistently questioned the value of the contracting out of
prison education services. Whilst we are opposed to the contracting
out of prison education, we are at the same time practical and
therefore seek ways to move forward with contractors under present
11. Our first objection to contracting out of prison education
is that we cannot see any visible benefit to prisoners from education
being contracted out. Whilst we do not suggest that prison education
is worse than it was before 1993 (when contracts were first issued),
we do not see any significant improvement, and believe that local
education services could provide the same services equally as
12. Our second objection relates to staffing. With a five-yearly
cycle of competitive tendering, prison education staff understandably
become concerned over their job security. The Forum on Prisoner
Education joins with NATFHE (the National Association of Teachers
in Further and Higher Education) in expressing these concerns.
Successful prison education can only take place when those responsible
for delivery are contented in their work and feel a sense of security.
We pay tribute to the incredibly hard work undertaken by prison
educators, in what can often be challenging and even hostile environments.
13. Our third, and final, objection is a fundamental moral
opposition to contracting out on the basis that it leads to a
profit/loss, business-led approach to prisoner education. We do
not believe that private contracting should feature in any aspect
of imprisonment or punishment, as profit from punishment is, we
14. In January 2004, after the latest round of tendering (under
'Project REX') was due to start, the Offenders' Learning &
Skills Unit at the DfES announced that contracts were being automatically
extended. This is believed to be due to uncertainty over the shape
of offender education within the framework of the National Offender
Management Service (NOMS). The government minister responsible
for prison education, Mr Ivan Lewis MP, told a Forum on Prisoner
Education evening reception in May 2004 that the decision to abandon
the tendering process was a 'courageous step', taken because his
department was 'unhappy with the general direction of travel'.
The cost of the abandoned exercise was £346,000. Whatever
the reason behind the abandoning of 'Project REX', this further
illustrates the problems and uncertainty faced by prison education
staff, and we urge the government to clarify the future position
15. Our understanding is that, under NOMS, offender education
(both community-based and in custody) will be organised on a regional
basis with one contractor serving each region. The thinking behind
this is that it will allow an offender to complete an educational
course in the community after release from custody. This is an
excellent idea, but we fear that it is destined to fail. A significant
proportion of prisoners are held in prisons more than fifty miles
from home, and are likely to return to a different region to that
in which they are imprisoned. Unless there is to be a consistent
educational programme throughout England and Wales, a large number
of prisoners will not benefit from this 'flow-through'.
16. Information on contractual arrangements for the delivery
of prisoner and offender education is often unavailable, on the
basis that the information is 'commercially confidential'. We
believe that this is a significant barrier to allowing greater
transparency in terms of budgets, cost and performance. Contractors
should be encouraged to share information to make their provision
17. Targets are set by the Offenders' Learning & Skills
Unit at the DfES on the number of basic skills awards gained by
prisoners each year. However, no targets are set beyond Level
2, and information on the number of awards and qualifications
is difficult to obtain. The OLSU and prison service should begin
recording achievement in these higher-level qualifications and
awards as a matter of urgency. It is equally important that the
targets set reflect the complexities of the prison environment,
and do not merely reflect targets set in educational institutions
in the community.
The Provision of Appropriate Training Facilities within Prisons
18. The Forum on Prisoner Education acknowledges that a majority
of prisoners have basic skills needs, and we welcome the government's
attention in this area. We do have concerns over the quality
of basic skills provision, with deficiencies frequently highlighted
by the various inspection agencies.
19. Basic skills education is undeniably the focus of all
prison education departments, largely due to these departments
having targets set by the DfES and prison service. However, this
unremitting diet of basic skills is to the detriment of prisoner
capable of higher levels of study and we would like to see a greater
emphasis on GCSE, A-Level, HND, undergraduate and postgraduate
study as an expansion of the curriculum.
20. We have welcomed significant capital investment in prison
education buildings in recent years, but argue that the government
needs to go much further. At North Sea Camp prison in Lincolnshire,
some classes take place in temporary buildings such as 'Portakabins',
although having been in place for decades they are far from 'temporary'.
In the summer they are stiflingly hot; in the winter bitterly
cold. These are far from ideal learning conditions. In her most
recent Annual Report, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons told of one
prison holding school-age children, but which only had space for
20% of the prisoners held there. It is clear that further significant
investment is required as a matter of some urgency.
21. The wider prison regime can sometimes work against effective
education. In many prisons, for example, two sessions run each
day, in the morning from 9.00am to 11.30am and in the afternoon
from 1.45pm to 4.15pm. We would not expect schoolchildren to spent
2½ hours in one lesson, and progress must be made in breaking
up these sessions to avoid boredom.
22. The Forum on Prisoner Education encourages the provision
and support for prisoners wishing to undertake distance learning
courses. Currently, prisoners studying for such a course are expected
to undertake their study in-cell, with some spending a little
time in the education department. We would like to see prison
education departments, and prisons as a whole, offer space for
quiet study for prisoners on distance learning and other courses.
23. In-cell study is often not easy. With the spiralling prison
population, many prisoners are now expected to share a cell with
another prisoner, who might not appreciate his cell-mate's need
for quiet study. We would encourage prison education managers,
the Heads of Learning & Skills, and others on the prison's
Senior Management Team to consider prioritising single-cell requests
for prisoners who wish to study.
24. However, prison wings are also very noisy places, with
steel doors banging, loud music and televisions, and heavy footsteps
on metal walkways. We urge caution in viewing in-cell study as
a panacea to the problems of space in education departments. Ideally,
we would like to see a trial of a prison wing being devoted entirely
to student-prisoners who wish to study in-cell. In the meantime,
we would welcome prisons offering a quiet area for evening study,
perhaps in the library or in a wing classroom.
25. Many distance learning courses now require internet access,
either for research, examinations, or liaison with course tutors.
This presents a major problem in prisons, where internet access
is not available due to 'security considerations'. The Forum on
Prisoner Education believes that this shows a lack of determination
and imagination on the part of HM Prison Service. Secure internet
access could be provided with relative ease, by using existing
software similar to that used by parents to block websites they
deem unsuitable for their children. This would open up a whole
new resource, not only for education, but also in terms of resettlement.
Exeter University conducted an evaluation of a pilot of the Learndirect
programme in five prisons, and concluded "that the benefits
to [prisoners] of the presence of Learndirect facilities
are significant". The continuing denial of access to the
internet also further excludes prisoners from the labour market,
where knowledge and experience of using the internet is often
now required. The Forum on Prisoner Education is currently planning
to set up a Working Group to examine this area in more detail,
with a view to publishing a policy paper in due course.
26. Prison libraries are often a haven for the student prisoner.
Operated by local authorities, prison libraries usually offer
the full range of services (such as book ordering) available in
community libraries. Sadly, however, prison libraries often stand
unused for large parts of the day, and in some cases prisoners
have access only once every two weeks. We would like to see prison
libraries further integrated with educational provision, with
more titles being made available with relevance to the educational
curriculum. We would also like to see prison libraries offer books
which allow prisoners to take control of their own learning, without
necessarily coming into contact with the education department
- an example might be a self-teach foreign language course.
27. Under the Prison Rules (a statutory instrument),
prisoners are entitled to make telephone calls to legal advisors
at public expense. We believe that, for prisoners on distance
learning courses, a similar provision should be made available
for contact with tutors and educational institutions. Without
email, prisoners often have no means of making urgent contact
with these people and agencies.
28. Finally, and also in relation to distance learning courses,
we are concerned about the effects that 'volumetric control' (where
the amount of personal belongings a prisoner may hold in his or
her cell is controlled - all personal belongings should fit inside
one box) may have on prisoners undertaking distance learning -
particularly higher education - who might have several books and
other learning material which would ordinarily exceed the limits
set by volumetric control. Prisons should make allowances for
prisoners in this respect.
The Role of Prison Staff in Supporting Educational Activities
29. Prison staff - from governors through to officers and
operational support grade staff - have a pivotal role in supporting
educational activities. Whilst the Forum on Prisoner Education
acknowledges that attitudes towards prisoner education have improved
over recent years, we are still aware of some staff who are unsupportive
and sometimes even downright dismissive of prisoner education.
Furthermore many prison officers have allowed a culture of dismissiveness
to grow amongst the prisoner population. This is counterproductive
to positive achievement.
30. Research by NATFHE and the Association of Colleges found
that 45% of governors and 43% of education managers said that
'conflict with other regime areas hindered education in their
establishment'. In addition 34% of both groups reported uniformed
staff lacked commitment to prison education.
31. The Forum on Prisoner Education believes that education
should be at the heart of the prison regime, with prisons embracing
the role of a learning institution. We believe that the purpose
of prison as a learning institution is to encourage education
amongst all who spend time there. Prison staff, including officers,
civilian staff and governors should all take the learning ethic
on board, and educational courses should be available to all.
An investment in staff education and development would, we feel,
pay dividends to a prison service with chronic staffing problems,
particularly in terms of retention.
32. Education, as the central focus of the prison regime,
should be designed to feed into other regime areas such as work
and the delivery of offending behaviour programmes. Vocational
education in prison rarely offers the skills needed in today's
labour market, and incorporating education with work could overcome
some of these problems.
Links with Employers and Employer-led Initiatives
33. The stated aim of the prison service is to assist prisoners
in leading a 'law-abiding life after release'. This means equipping
prisoners with the skills and abilities to be able to meet that
aim. Education can - and very often does - meet the needs of more
than half of prisoners who are, through poor skills, ineligible
for the vast majority of jobs. However, we believe that in preparing
prisoners for release and employment, much more needs to be done.
34. Vocational education in prison is often centred either
on kitchens, cleaning, gardening or maintenance (including painting
and decorating). These can be valuable and transferable skills
which may enable an ex-prisoner to move on from crime, but in
many of these cases into only low-skilled and therefore low-paid
jobs. Prisoners need to be equipped for a much wider spectrum
35. Some prison work can be menial, and largely useless in
the outside world. Prisoners at Swaleside prison in Kent have
spent time counting and weighing nails and screws for a major
DIY store. In aiming to increase ex-prisoner's employability and
skills, such work is useless.
36. We admire and pay tribute to the work of companies such
as Transco, who have recognised the potential of the prison population
as future employees and spend time running workshops and training
prisoners, before employing them after release. At another level,
companies such as Toyota have funded mechanics' workshops in prisons.
In the voluntary sector, the Howard League for Penal Reform is
currently setting up a printshop within The Mount prison, to be
managed and run by the charity as a 'normal' company, seeking
business from outside. Such projects and initiatives are undoubtedly
the way forward in vocational education in prisons.
37. The Forum on Prisoner Education would encourage private
sector employers to come into prisons and explore ways in which
they can work with the prison and prisoners to their mutual advantage,
although prisons must be mindful that they should not be used
as a source of potential cheap labour. We would urge the government
to explore ways in which this private sector involvement could
be encouraged, with private sector employers making positive statements
about the employment of ex-offenders.
Continuing support and guidance on release, including coordination
with local providers
38. Prisoners serving short sentences often face one of two
problems: the education department might not offer a course which
can be completed within the timescale of the sentence; or if they
do begin a course, they might not be able to complete it after
release. Only 6% of prisoners continue with some form of education
and training upon release. Flow-through, from custody to community,
is one of the biggest challenges in prisoner education today -
but we do not believe it is insurmountable.
39. Prison education departments are encouraged to explore
avenues for prisoners nearing release to continue their education
in the community. Due to workloads, and other priorities within
the prison, education staff often do not have the time or resources
to be able to do this. Education currently has a place in the
sentence planning process, and we would like to see the resettlement
element tied in with the educational aspects to ensure that community
education can be explored as part of pre-release resettlement
40. The creation of the National Offender Management Service
(NOMS) will significantly change the landscape of provision for
offenders in almost all areas. At the time of writing, with the
planned June launch having been postponed until September, it
is unclear how the creation of NOMS will impact upon offender
41. It is clear that the length of sentence ought not to be
a barrier to learning. Prisoners should be able to begin courses
that they will be able to continue and complete after release.
The problem currently experienced by many ex-prisoners is that
the course they were taking in prison is either not available
in the community, or is available but that they are coming
in at a different time of year and therefore place in the course
schedule. Understandably, many prisoners then lose interest and
do not pursue their education.
42. A framework and system of records transfer should be created
and instituted as a matter of urgency to allow educational records
to come into prison with the prisoner, and then leave with him/her
upon release. No such system currently exists on a statutory basis.
Each prisoner should have the facility to keep a record of his/her
achievements as well as a copy of the courses being followed.
Far too many records are 'lost in transit'.
43. If NOMS is to have an impact upon education, then it should
work to ensure that, as far as possible, prisoners leaving custody
can continue their course in the community at any time of the
year. Prison education courses should mirror those available in
the community, leading to nationally recognised and accredited
44. In an increasingly budget-driven and business-minded further
education sector, local providers such as colleges should be encouraged
to see ex-prisoners as an important group of potential students.
Colleges' inclusion policies and widening participation units
should be encouraged to examine how they might best work to attract
more ex-prisoners to enrol.
45. A number of colleges and universities discriminate against
ex-prisoners. We have recently become aware of a 'new' university
withdrawing an unconditional offer from an ex-prisoner who was
due to begin a law degree, for the reason that he was an ex-prisoner.
In another example, an ex-prisoner sentenced for shoplifting was
told by her college that she could enrol only if she agreed (and
signed an agreement to that effect) not to walk down the corridor
in her college on which the shop was located. The Forum on Prisoner
Education is currently planning a research project to determine
the extent of this discrimination and work towards a model policy
for adoption by colleges and universities.
Education, training and support for those on probation
46. Whilst we are the Forum on Prisoner Education,
our charitable aim is to 'improve the quality, availability and
consistency of education and training within the criminal justice
system'. This therefore includes probation and community penalties.
47. Whereas prisoners who do not take part in education are
three times more likely to be reconvicted as those that do, for
offenders under probation supervision, the effects of education
can be just as important.
48. The current government has largely rebuilt the penal system,
and since 1997 has introduced a wide range of community-based
penalties, some of which (such as the Drug Treatment and Testing
Order, and the Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme)
have been shown to have positive effects. We welcome and applaud
the government for their sustained attention to non-custodial
49. However, within the framework of most community penalties,
as presently constituted, the maximum time an offender may spend
on education as part of a community penalty is 10% of the total
sentence (excluding the Community Punishment Order). And whilst
prison education has a budget of some £122m in 2004/5, the
budget for community offender education is just £10m. We
believe that this shows a lack of foresight in the design of community
50. We are concerned also at the growing tendency to 'sentence'
an offender to education. Making education a compulsory and integral
part of punishment and supervision regimes can reinforce the negative
feelings that many offenders will have of education. We are fundamentally
opposed to compulsion in offender education, and believe
that it must remain an option.
51. The Offenders' Learning & Skills Unit (OLSU) at the
DfES has overseen the creation of the role of 'Head of Learning
& Skills' in all prisons in England and Wales, the intention
being to firmly root education within prison management. We believe
that the OLSU need to work with the Regional Offender Managers
(yet to be appointed) within NOMS to create a similar post within
52. Probation officers - or 'offender managers' as they are
to become - should be made fully aware of the educational facilities
available to their clients, and undertake a scoping exercise with
each client to determine whether an educational programme is appropriate.
An educational record from the prison (see Para. 42, above) would
assist greatly in this process.
53. Effort should be made in ensuring that when an offender
completes his community-based order, he can complete any ongoing
educational programme and is encouraged to do so. NOMS Regional
Offender Managers should consider appointing an education professional
to offer continued guidance to those offenders who have completed
their community programme, to bypass the rigidity of sentence
length by which probation officers are currently constrained.