Select Committee on Education and Skills Seventh Report

1  Introduction

1. The transfer of responsibility for prison education to the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) has created an important opportunity for this Committee to inquire into the provision of education and training in prisons, and to scrutinise provision against mainstream standards. We welcome the opportunity to shine a light on an area that is given very little attention by both Government and the general public.

2. During the course of this inquiry we took evidence from; the Adult Learning Inspectorate; the Association of Colleges; Lord Filkin, Janice Shiner, Susan Pember, and Chris Barnham from the Department for Education and Skills; the Dialogue Trust; staff and offenders at Feltham Young Offenders' Institution; Anne Owers HMI Chief Inspector of Prisons; Paul Goggins (MP) and Phil Wheatley from the Home Office; the Howard League for Penal Reform; Jeanne Harding, Dudley College of Technology; Professor Andrew Coyle, Director of the International Centre for Prison Studies, Kings College London; Caroline Neville, the Learning and Skills Council; Merron Mitchell, City College Manchester; NATFHE—the University and College Lecturers' Union; Martin Narey, National Offender Management Service; OCR—the awarding body; Ofsted; the Prison Governors' Association; the Prison Officers' Association; the Prison Reform Trust; Professor David Wilson, Forum on Prison Education and University of Central England; Professor Augustin John, University of Strathclyde; the Shannon Trust; Unlock - the National Association of Ex-Offenders; the Youth Justice Board.

3. Our inquiry has also been informed by visits to Finland and Norway in October 2004 and to British Columbia, Canada in January 2005. Within the U.K., we visited Camphill, Albany and Parkhurst Prisons on the Isle of Wight and HMP Reading. Unusually, we also held a formal evidence session outside Westminster at Feltham Young Offenders' Institution. What we learned on these visits has aided us immensely in our work.

4. We are very grateful to our specialist advisers Professor Andrew Coyle, Director of the International Centre for Prison Studies, Kings College London; Christine Braddock, Principal of Matthew Boulton College, Birmingham; and Sarah Morgan, Head of Learning and Skills, HMP Garth, for their assistance with this inquiry. We would also like to extend our thanks to the Forum on Prisoner Education for supplying us with detailed statistical information.


5. Education has been provided in prisons since 1908. Until 1991 prison education was delivered by local providers. It was funded by the Home Office and delivered under contract by Local Education Authority adult education services and Further Education colleges. In 1991 a tendering process was introduced where contractors bid for 5 year contracts and delivered education in prisons across much wider geographical areas. There was very little flexibility in the contract at local level and contracts were based on the number of teaching hours delivered. Prison education could no longer be cut at the whim of the Governor, but the cost of this was the loss of both local delivery and flexibility of provision to meet the needs of the individual learner.

6. In 2001, responsibility for prison education was transferred to the DfES bringing prison education into the mainstream. A similar transfer had been made, with responsibility for health services in prison moving to the Department of Health, with great success. After decades of neglect, prison education has seen some recent improvements, but we believe that these changes are not nearly enough. The transfer of responsibility to the DfES has been welcomed, but progress has been nothing like that which has been seen in health services and questions remain regarding overall responsibility for prison education and future provision.

Principal findings

7. By way of introducing the context of this report, we will outline the principle findings at this stage. The main recommendations and conclusions are listed at the end of the report.

8. It is essential that we are clear about the purpose of prison education. The purpose of prison education should be understood as part of a wider approach to reduce recidivism through the rehabilitation of prisoners. Although contributing to the reduction of recidivism is of key importance, prison education is about more than just this. It is important also because to provide prison education is the right thing to do and this is an important point to bear in mind when making policy decisions. Education as part of a broader approach to rehabilitation must consider the full range of needs of the prisoner and continue to support the prisoner on release. Prison education does not take place in isolation, and its purpose cannot be understood in isolation from these wider issues.

9. The transfer of responsibility to the DfES in 2001 has not yet achieved a significant increase in the priority given to prison education. The main finding of this Committee is that progress in the provision of prison education and training is being hampered by a lack of clarity of purpose in an over-arching strategy. Despite the creation of the Offender Learning and Skills Unit within the DfES, there is little sense of ownership of prison education, no obvious high profile champion within the DfES, and no drive or energy in moving things forward. The introduction of the National Offender Management Service has added to the confusion over responsibilities. In spite, or because of, all of these players, there is no strategic direction and it is not clear where decisions about policy are made. Prison education must rise up the Government's agenda. Purpose and commitment must come from Government leadership.

10. Current uncertainty is mirrored at local level, with the prison governor, the head of learning and skills, the education manager and now the regional offender manager all having a role in the management of prison education. Everyone agrees that there needs to be an improvement in existing contract arrangements, but recent reforms, including the cancellation of a new tendering round, known as Project Rex, have caused a great deal of uncertainty and instability for staff. The Learning and Skills Council (LSC) were given responsibility for the funding, planning and delivery of prison education in 2004 and will take on this responsibility in full from 2006. The LSC have been running three prototypes since January 2005, and new contract arrangements are to be rolled out nationally in August 2006. This Committee has concerns over the timetable of the national roll-out, the lack of clarity of the criteria on which prototypes will be assessed, and more generally, we have concerns about this being done in isolation of any overarching strategy about what it is that prison education should be delivering.

11. Current provision is focused on the delivery of basic skills and is driven by Key Performance Targets that each prison has to meet in this area. It is widely accepted that basic skills are not sufficient to enable a prisoner to improve their employability in isolation of broader learning including soft skills, and that such a concentrated focus has narrowed the curriculum to the detriment of the learners. Existing Key Performance Targets are driving provision in an unhelpful manner and need to be re-considered, as does the very concentrated focus on basic skills. More research is needed to find out what type of education should be delivered in prisons and what works in terms of enabling prisoners to enter secure employment on release.

12. There needs to be a much better integration of education, vocational training, and work regimes in prisons and a significant step change in the level of provision of high quality vocational and work-based education. Schemes such as the Young Offender Programme, led by National Grid Transco, that now involves over 50 employers and trains prisoners for real jobs to meet a genuine skills gap, must be the way forward for vocational training in prisons. Real pay for real work should be given further consideration and, at the very least, the pay that prisoners receive for education should be equal to any other activity undertaken. Entrepreneurial activity that has achieved links with local businesses as well as local Further Education Colleges and Universities only exists in pockets of excellence at present and should be far more widespread.

13. There needs to be an overarching strategy for prison education that recognises that there have to be different models of delivery in different prisons. The majority of prisoners are short-term prisoners passing through local prisons. For these prisoners there should be a service which focuses on properly assessing the needs and aspirations of the individual and providing information advice and guidance that concentrates on linking them with learning and skills provision in the local community and ensuring that they have access to this provision after release. A successful system for the electronic transfer of records is needed as a matter of priority for this to be possible. The provision for longer term prisoners should be different with appropriate education and training available in prisons.

14. We welcome the recognition by Government that improvements are needed. This aspiration needs to be matched by a coherent approach. The real key to success is not to create a parallel structure for prison education at national or regional level, but rather to make sure that prisoners have access to the facilities which already exist locally. A new approach is required regarding the delivery of prisoners' Individual Learning Plans as part of their sentence plans. Implementation so far has been shambolic. Individual Learning Plans need proper implementation with a thorough and robust assessment of needs (including special educational needs), linked to entitlement, and a much greater focus on the continuation of provision on release through mainstream services.

15. Finally, there are a number of considerable barriers across the wider prison regime that are adding to the difficulty of successfully delivering prison education, including overcrowding and constant movement of prisoners between prisons, described colloquially as 'churn'. The sentencing of short-term prisoners needs radical re-thinking. It is very difficult to achieve improvements in prison education without changes in the wider prison regime. Changes will have to be driven from the top down, and without a strong commitment to reduce overcrowding and 'churn', these barriers will continue to prevent the effective delivery of prison education.

16. We must keep in mind the fact that a prison is a prison and not a secure learning centre. Nevertheless, the Government should be aiming to develop a culture in prisons in which education is a priority. This cannot be achieved without a significant shift in the investment in training given to Prison Officers. At just 8 weeks, the initial training period for Prison Officers is too short and we invite the Home Office to review this. A much greater level of investment in staff education and development is required in order to encourage a more positive attitude amongst Prison Officers towards the role that education has to play in prisons.

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