Select Committee on Education and Skills Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by The Open University


  1.  The Open University has been teaching students resident in prisons since 1971. The University's current scheme for the education of offenders began in 1996 and operates in the following jurisdictions:

    —  In England and Wales through a partnership with the Social Inclusion and Offenders Unit (SIOU) of the Department for Education and Skills. The University had previously engaged with PLSU and OLSU, the predecessors to SIOU.

    —  In Scotland through a partnership with the Directorate of Partnerships and Commissioning, Scottish Prisons Service.

    —  In Northern Ireland through a partnership with the Inmate Activities branch of the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

    —  In the Republic of Ireland through a partnership with the Department of Justice.

  2.  The University views this work as a key part of its mission to widen participation in higher education especially by those groups who are traditionally excluded from educational opportunities. The Prison Service partners see the opportunity for Open University study as a vital part of resettlement and a route to reducing re-offending through the development of skills for employment.

  3.  Any sentenced prisoner in any establishment is entitled to apply to study with the Open University. Offenders apply through the Prison Education Department. Any restrictions are those enforced by the prison education staff, the governors and the relevant government departments.

  4.  An important feature of Open University study is that no formal qualifications are required for entry as an undergraduate to the University. Offenders are encouraged to commence their study with an Openings course. These are short courses designed to allow students to sample different areas of study and choose the appropriate subject area for future study. These courses also allow students to ascertain their ability to study through supported distance learning within the prison environment. Once accepted on the course, the main criterion for all learners studying with the University is evidence of the ability to progress, based on work submitted. Students may study further Openings courses or progress through the undergraduate programme to achieve a Certificate, Diploma or Undergraduate Degree. Academic standards are strictly observed to ensure the credibility and the parity of the final qualification. This form of open learning is particularly valued by those who may have missed out on earlier educational opportunities, and who often, through the Open University, only discover their abilities later in life.

  5.  Prison students on Openings courses and in their first year of undergraduate study are funded by SIOU. On subsequent courses the students are eligible to apply for financial support. In 2005-06, the financial support spend on UK students in the prison education system was £223k. Financial support monies are provided from the University's own resources.


  6.  Between 1 August 2005 and 31 July 2006 the total number of course registrations from students in prisons was 1,555. The prisoner student headcount was 1,203. The break down of course registrations by country was as follows:

    —  England and Wales  1,367

    —  Scotland  37

    —  Northern Ireland  42

    —  Republic of Ireland  109

  Table 1 shows course registrations by Faculty/type of course.

Table 1

Openings Courses26.5
Other Short Courses3
Business School and Law Courses3
Social Sciences29
Health and Social Care3.5
Education and Languages5

  7.  Between 1st August 2001 and 31st July 2006, prisoners in England and Wales have successfully achieved a total of 420 qualifications as summarised in Table 2.

Table 2

2001-02 2002-032003-04 2004-052005-06 Total
Undergraduate Certificates0.5 FTE 142352 9094273
Undergraduate Diplomas1 FTE 81611 92367
Non-Honours Degrees3 FTE 5549 1134
Honours Degrees3 FTE11 667 1141
Taught Masters Degrees2 FTE 210 115
Total40 5173116 140420

  8.  26.5% of offenders studied an Openings Course in 2005-06. Most Education Departments require students to take at least one Openings course to demonstrate their suitability for study at HE level.

  9.  Only 3% of students studied Short Courses. These are offered in Humanities and Science and are generally delivered without face-to-face tuition. Much of the support is online or through computer conferencing and few prisons can offer unlimited access to these services for offenders.

  10.  A number of courses in Health and Social Care are not available to prisoners because of the content or the need to have practical experience for example working with children or young people. In some cases offenders are prevented from studying such courses by the prison authorities as a direct result of their offence. This explains the relatively low number of students who studied in this subject area.

  11.  The comparatively low percentage of students who studied Science or Technology courses is related to the content of the courses and the media through which they are taught. Many courses have an integral residential component or an "Alternative Learning Experience" which is delivered online for students unable to attend the residential component. Access to these courses is becoming increasingly difficult for prison students.

  12.  29% of Open University students studied in the Social Science Faculty. Few courses have a compulsory online element. Most are delivered with face-to-face tuition and primarily through printed texts. Where computer access is required this does not usually necessitate the use of the Internet or computer conferencing.

  13.  Although 11.5% of students studied in the Faculty of Maths and Computing, they were generally unable to study those courses which are directly related to the Internet and its use or development.


  14.  A key skill for employability is Information and Communication Technology. ICT has been introduced into many Open University courses to ensure that graduates of the University have the necessary skills when looking for employment opportunities. The University is also developing plans to track student progress through their interaction with courses online, to ensure that timely and appropriate support is provided by tutors, and thus ICT is assuming a strategic role in the OU's student support system. Facilities in the Prison Estate are such that students are not always able to access even limited ICT training opportunities and are therefore at a disadvantage when returning to the job market. Whilst it is appreciated that security is paramount in prisons, the development of offender employability is also vital. We strongly recommend that the Prison Service make the provision of a secure Education Intranet a priority to facilitate offender learning, and we would be pleased to work with the Prison Service in support of this development.

  15.  Offenders are frequently moved between establishments. This can be detrimental to their education as not all prisons afford students the same facilities or opportunities for education. It has also been our experience that course materials tend to take some time to follow the student to the receiving establishment. We recommend that the Prison Service review Education facilities across the estate to ensure greater consistency for those engaging with education in preparation for release and employment.

  16.  Open University courses are delivered primarily through supported distance learning. Face-to-face support is offered on most courses and this is funded by SIOU. All Open University staff who are visiting prisons have to be security cleared. The processes for this are not consistent and the rigour with which this is done by some establishments can be prohibitive and cause undue delays in staff being allowed to engage with the prisoners. We recommend that tutors who will visit infrequently are not subject to the same rigorous security vetting procedures as full time prison staff as these tutors are rarely unsupervised on their visits.

  17.  Offenders may be released mid-course and in such circumstances it is beneficial for the University to have contact with the probation services. Currently relationships are nurtured at an individual and local level and the University is aware of the need for a more systematic institutional relationship with the service to ensure that students are supported on release. Closer communications between the Education staff in prisons and probation services is to be encouraged.

  18.  The availability of Open University study for offenders is an excellent means of developing these individuals in preparation for release. However, it can be a source of ill feeling for the staff who work in prisons for whom similar opportunities may not be available. The Prison Service should explore with the University how prison officers and other staff could be supported to study with the OU. We believe that this would benefit both offenders and officers, and remove a potential source of conflict.

December 2006

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