Select Committee on Education and Skills Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Prisoners' Education Trust

  Prisoners' Education Trust aims to enrich and extend education available to prisoners. Its main activity is to pay for course fees so that prisoners can study both academic and vocational subjects mainly through distance learning. Since it started work in 1990, the Trust has offered more than 12,000 prisoners the opportunity to gain new skills and qualifications. Currently, the Trust is funded through charitable donations and fundraising activities; (approximately 51%) and holds two government contracts: one from the Learning & Skills Council and one from the Social Inclusion & Offender Unit.

  Any sentenced prisoner who has a good chance of completing their chosen course before release may apply to the Trust. For this reason our comments relate only to those serving a custodial sentence.

  Although the Trust does not provide direct services to prisoners, it is in frequent contact with prison education departments across the country, receives correspondence from prisoners, and through a variety of monitoring gathers considerable information about the current state of education and training in prisons.


    —  The thrust of the Government's Green Paper, Reducing Re-offending through Skills & Employment, promises strong leadership across the three partner departments, emphasising the importance of gaining education and skills to successful rehabilitation. We are, however, concerned that it does not fully fulfil the spirit of the Offender Learning Journey. [15]That spirit put the needs of the individual at the centre of the education process. We believe that the Green Paper does not sufficiently recognise the needs of those for whom vocational skills are not appropriate; those who are unlikely to be able to work through illness or the nature of their offence; and those who are serving very long sentences.

    —  The need for robust and in depth research remains to be addressed.

    —  It is as yet too soon to know whether or not the transfer of the responsibility for prison education to the Learning & Skills Council will bring the positive benefits planned though we have concerns about the increase in bureaucracy required.

    —  Progress on allowing prisoners to use modern technology seems very slow and particularly hinders the studies of higher learners.

    —  We remain concerned that the motivation of prisoners is undermined by continuing lack of pay parity between work and education and the "churn" which is now worse than at the time the Select Committee produced its report.

    —  The barriers to education within the regime and highlighted in the Select Committee's Report have not significantly improved.


  1.  The Government Green Paper, Reducing Re-Offending Through Skills & Employment, promises strong leadership across three government departments and a commitment to rehabilitation which is very welcome. The Green Paper does much to address some of the concerns expressed in the Select Committee Report (paragraph 245) to improve vocational skills and to improve links with employers. However, the Trust expressed a number of reservations, particularly with regard diversity and individual needs. The following is an extract from the Trust's response to the Green Paper Consultation:

    The Trust welcomes the recognition in the Green Paper that prisoners are a varied group. In addition to the diversity outlined, it is important to remember that prisoners are also educationally diverse. As noted in the Green Paper, inspection evidence states that the learning and skills on offer is often unresponsive to individual needs. [Green Paper, Chapter 3]

    The focus on raising skill levels to secure better employment outcomes is vital, but it must not be at the expense of the recognition outlined in paragraph 12 which states that: "Providing opportunities for purposeful activity, for self improvement and connection to the world beyond the prison walls, is a vital factor in running a humane and decent regime." [Green Paper, paragraph 12]

    The increasing expenditure on undergraduate opportunities is very welcome. However, it is important to note that the opportunities mentioned relate entirely to courses run by the Open University. Further and higher education is much wider than this and should not be seen solely in relation to university education. For example, management, bookkeeping, horticulture, computing, and counselling skills can all be studied at above Level 3 and often through distance learning. Currently, such studying depends largely on prisoners providing their own funds or on charitable funding. [Green Paper, Chapter 3]

  2.  The need for robust and in depth research pointed out in the Select Committee Report remains to be addressed. For example, we are not aware of any research in to the true levels of literacy. Figures are still quoted from the Basic Skills Assessments which tests only the ability to respond to a formal questionnaire, often in less than ideal conditions. Whilst it is clear many of those in prison do have basic skills needs, their functional level of literacy and numeracy are often unrecognised. We would argue that if the budgets allocated to education and rehabilitation are to be used to maximum value, it is essential and urgent that the select committee's recommendation be implemented as a matter of urgency.

  3.  Transfer of responsibility of offender education to the Learning & Skills Councils:

  3.1  It is really too early to tell how far this will improve education for those in custody. From the Trust's point of view, we were pleased that in our contract to provide 300 distance learning courses in prisons during the current financial year, the Learning & Skills Council recognised that some prisoner-students need to follow courses that will enhance their self-development and confidence.

  3.2  There are concerns, however, that the Learning & Skills Councils' procedures are bureaucratic. Conversations with education staff around the country indicate that they are spending far more time completing forms than getting on with the work itself. We know of at least three education managers who have resigned because of the amount of paper work.

  3.3  Many education staff report that the curriculum is narrowing and being ever more focussed on basic skills. This hearsay evidence is borne out by an increase in applications to the Trust for art materials to be used in class; and a small, but significant, increase in the number of courses such as anger management which should be the responsibility of the prison.

  3.4  The Learning & Skills Councils' efforts to provide high quality vocational training is hampered by their remit. Many vocational courses that are likely to lead to well-paid jobs are outside their funding remit. Examples of this include: Heavy Goods Vehicle training; public track safety courses (for work on the railways); and scaffolding.

  3.5  The issue of which Government department is to be responsible for higher education for prisoners appears to remain unresolved. The Learning & Skills Councils are unable to fund courses above Level 3. The Social Inclusion & Offenders Unit gives considerable support to those studying with the Open University, funding the fees for first level modules and paying for the Open University tutors to visit prisons to give tutorials. Higher education in prisons is undertaken mainly by distance learning. There are two principal issues:

    (a)  The need to expand the support for higher learning so that prisoner-students have the opportunity to choose between universities and other higher education including the arts.

    (b)  The second issue relates to internal educational and administrative support for prisoner-students undertaking higher studies. It would appear that many of the new contracts do not cover this aspect and we are concerned that much of the support for higher learners is undertaken by tutors in their own time. The Social Inclusion & Offender Unit does have a policy group looking into this area and it is to be hoped that it will reach its conclusions in time for the new financial year.

  Access to courses above Level 3 are important to allow prisoners to progress; to achieve appropriate qualifications to improve their employability; and to provide a focus for those serving long sentences, offering the "humane and decent regime" referred to in the Green Paper.

  4.  Access to modern technology remains a rare opportunity for prisoners and is increasingly hampering learning. Whilst the Trust recognises that the security issues must be addressed (and is aware of the policy committee looking into the matter) progress is slow. We cannot see very much response to the Select Committee's recommendation 35 which urges that the Government "set[s] out a clear timetable for implementation of access across the prison estate." Lack of access to the Internet means that students are increasingly restricted in their choice of learning. This is especially so for students with the Open University. Poetry, law, many sciences courses, and some computer courses are among those which are unavailable to prisoner-students. The European experience shows that safe Internet access is possible as a recent study, Internet Inside, demonstrated. There is another issue too. If prisoners are to leave prison equipped for the modern world, then they need to have a good understanding of modern technology not just for learning but for everyday life including job searches.

  5.  Motivation to learn can often be difficult to maintain. Three of the biggest barriers to maintaining motivation are: transfers—the "churn"; poor study facilities; and lack of pay parity.

  5.1  The Select Committee's report was uncompromising in its recommendation that the high level of transfers has to stop if prison education is to achieve it aims (paragraph 50). The situation has not improved and if anything has worsened with the prison population now in excess of 80,000. Prisoners continue to be transferred with little reference to any education or training they are undertaking or whether courses being studied are available at the next prison. Many prisoners have half finished NVQs in a variety of subjects. This causes frustration both to the teachers and to the prisoners. The cost of such transfers in terms of uncompleted studies does not appear to be known. Given the relatively small number of prisoners undertaking education (it is thought to be less than 30%) it would seem relatively easy to establish a national "holding" system for such prisoner-students—as indeed does happen in some prisons.

  5.2  Regimes across the prison estate are inconsistent as to what can and can't be used in a prison. In our experience this inconsistency has applied to use of lap tops; waiving of volumetric controls for higher learners; use of CDs and DVDs; and subjects studied.

  5.3  Study facilities, particularly for distance learning, vary hugely from prison to prison. In some, there is access two or three times a week to a well equipped classroom where students can use computers to type up their assignments and gain assistance in study skills. This latter is particularly useful for those beginning distance learning courses. In other prisons, prisoner-students may have to choose between a study period and using the gym and/or having a shower. A quiet place to study can often be at a premium. More than one prisoner-student has reported to us that they do the majority of their studying at five in the morning.

  5.4  Although there is some improvement in pay parity, there are still large numbers of prisoners where a decision to opt for education is a serious sacrifice, often as much as £3-£6 a week—considerable sums in prison terms. It is good to see that in some prisons, prisoners have the opportunity to work in workshops offering the chance to earn good money and achieve useful qualifications. There are still many where prisoners spend their days putting screws into plastic bags and similar repetitive work which offers little in terms of development but a good reward in terms of prison pay.

  5.6  The Offenders Learning Journey offered the prospect of a learner-centred and flexible approach. This is vital if prisoners are to be attracted to and retained on education and training courses. There are many imaginative schemes for doing this including providing basic skills in workshops rather than in classrooms (which can be intimidating for those with poor experience of school) and learning through art, drama and music projects. It is to be hoped that these will be allowed to flourish along side the basic and vocational skills training.

December 2006

15   Offenders Learning Journey was published by the Offenders Learning & Skills Unit (predecessor to the Social Inclusion & Offenders Unit as the framework document underpinning the transfer of offender learning to the Learning & Skills Council. Back

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