Not just another brick in the wall: why prisoners need an education to climb the ladder of opportunity – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Education Committee

Related inquiry: Prison education

Date Published: 18 May 2022

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Prison education is in a poor state following a long-term decline in both the quality of education and the number of prisoners participating in learning or training. In December 2020, Ofsted reported that nearly two-thirds of inspections showed poor management of the quality of education, skills and work in the custodial estate. Only nine of the 32 institutions inspected were judged to be good or outstanding, compared to eight out of 10 providers for further education in the community.

Prison education and training plays a key role in changing lives and improving people’s futures, getting prisoners onto the ladder of opportunity. Research by the Ministry of Justice found that people who had participated in education whilst in prison were significantly less likely to reoffend within 12 months of release than those who had not by 7.5% points.

Prison education must play a key role in improving the employability of prisoners and therefore in reducing reoffending. However, prison education must also be understood in broader terms than just improving the employability of a prisoner. Education allows a prisoner to gain self-confidence and provides mental health benefits in isolating conditions, while improving their behaviours in prison. Education has a value in itself, developing the person as a whole. The Ministry of Justice must develop prison education policy accordingly.

The Coates Review highlighted the need for prison education to be at the heart of the prison system. Six years later, we are concerned that this aspiration has still not been realised. There have been a number of missed opportunities to effect major change and to change the culture surrounding prison education. While we welcome the Government’s renewed focus on prison education with the publication of the White Paper on Prison Strategy in December 2021, our inquiry highlighted the urgent need for change across the prison estate. Our Report therefore makes the following key recommendations.

Improve support for prisoners with SEND and learning difficulties

Data shows that over 30% of prisoners have a learning difficulty or learning challenges. However, we heard that this figure is likely to be an underestimate and that the true scale of the issue is not known, as prisons rely heavily on prisoners declaring themselves to have learning needs. The current screening process is not adequate to identify prisoners with additional leaning needs. We recommend that the Ministry of Justice introduce a consistent assessment process for every prisoner when they enter the prison estate. We believe that there is a strong case for every prisoner to receive an assessment for learning needs from an educational psychologist, or at the very least a more intensive form of screening, and we recommend that the Ministry of Justice prepares a cost appraisal for implementing such an approach.

There needs to be a whole prison approach to prisoners with learning difficulties. This is currently hampered by the lack of information sharing between the community and the prison estate regarding prisoners’ educational attainment in the community, and any learning difficulties that were identified. This also continues during the prison sentence, with different departments holding their own information on prisoners. There must be greater integrated working between different providers in custody—between education, health and offender management. The Government must introduce legislation to enable data on prisoners to be shared so that prisons can access prisoners’ previous records of educational attainment from the National Pupil Database, and also to enable previous diagnosis on learning needs to be shared.

The Government must provide greater clarity on the funding available to fund specialist support staff, how many will be appointed, where they will be distributed across the prison estate, with a minimum of one SENCo per prison, and the timescale for their introduction across the prison estate.

Introduce Digital Education Passports

Prisoners are often transferred with short notice across the prison estate. The loss or delay in the transfer of their educational records can have serious repercussions on their ability to continue their studies, and can in some cases cause prisoners to become disheartened and to give up on their learning. It is unacceptable that the effort made by prisoners in improving themselves can be so easily discarded. The Ministry of Justice must introduce a digital education passport, which contains a record of a prisoner’s learning, and any identified educational needs, that follows prisoners through their sentence and across the prison estate.

Transfer of prisoners

The transfer of prisoners is a significant barrier against effective prisoner education. When considering moving prisoners, the position of where they are in a course or qualification should be considered. The ability of whether they would be able to continue their qualification where they are moved to, should also be a factor.

Improve links between prisons and employers

The reoffending rate for adult prisoners released from custody is 42%, with an estimated yearly cost of £15 billion. Many factors can help reduce reoffending post-release, but one of the most important is getting prison leavers into employment. Government statistics show that employment can reduce the chance of reoffending significantly—by up to nine percentage points compared to those without a job upon release. However, a significant number of people leaving prison are currently failing to find employment. The proportion of former prisoners in P45 employment one year after release is just 17%. The low number of former prisoners finding long-term employment following their release from prison is stark.

The prison estate has a role in supporting former prisoners in finding employment, We welcome the employment hubs that are currently operational, but believe that the scheme must be extended. The Government must, by the end of the year, set out a clear timetable for the roll-out of employment hubs across the prison estate, where appropriate.

No-one understands the skills market better than employers. Local partnership with employers is key to identifying and providing the necessary skills for the job market. Prisons must be able to react to the needs of employers. We welcome the announcements in the Government’s White Paper to improve links between prisons and businesses, such as the establishment of Employment Advisers and local Employment Boards. The Ministry of Justice must in its response to our Report set out clear timetables for the changes announced in its White Paper on Prison Strategy.

Encourage businesses to employ former prisoners

Businesses may have some reservations about employing former prisoners, which the Government must work to overcome. The Government must introduce incentives to encourage businesses to employ former prisoners, such as national insurance holidays for the first year of employing former prisoners.

Allow prisoners undertaking education to have access to educational digital resources

The prison population does not have internet access. The majority of prisons in England and Wales do not have the cabling or hardware to support broadband. The lack of controlled and secure access to educational digital resources is a significant barrier to learning. It is stifling opportunity for improvement through education and leaving prisoners unprepared for the real world, lacking the digital skills they need for employment and life skills, and reducing their likelihood of reoffending. The digital divide between prisoners and the community is ever increasing. We cannot let this continue. The pandemic has brought into stark focus the need for prisoners to be able to work individually and in their cells. The Government must set out, by the end of the year, a date for when all prisons will be able to support broadband.

We have serious concerns around allowing prisoners free and un-fettered access to the internet. However, we have been assured that security concerns can be overcome as technology exists which allows access to be restricted to approved content which can be monitored. A change in attitude to technology in prisons is long overdue. The Ministry of Justice must ensure that prisoners are taught the digital skills necessary to live in a digital age and those necessary for employment and life skills. If security can be assured and access can be monitored and tightly restricted to educational purposes, we recommend that the Ministry of Justice provide in-cell laptops, such as Chromebooks, to prisoners only when undertaking education.

Establish the role of Deputy Governor of Learning

There needs to be a culture shift within prisons to embed a culture of education into prison establishments. This will not happen unless it is supported by all the prison departments, and by all levels of staff. Governors must raise the profile of prison education and to promote and facilitate education in prisons wherever possible. There must be a clear signal in each prison that education is an operational priority. We recommend that each prison has a Deputy Governor of Learning who is part of the Senior Management team, and is directly responsible for education audits and the educational outcomes of prisoners. The job description for this role must include qualifications and/or experience in prison education.

Incentivise prisoners to engage with education

Many prisoners have limited or negative experiences of education and therefore a limited belief in the potential of learning. We recognise that incentives could play a part in getting prisoners “through the doors” to start their engagement, or to get them re-engaged, with education. Prison education is often paid at a lower rate than unskilled work, acting as a disincentive. We recommend that the Ministry of Justice ensures that pay for education is equal to the pay for prison work, to ensure that prisoners do not lose out by choosing education. In order to qualify for the equal pay, prisoners must be able to demonstrate progress within their studies. We also recommend that the Government examines the potential of using Release on Temporary License (ROTL) as an incentive to encourage prisoners to engage with education.

Give greater access to loans to undertake higher education

The current educational offer in prisons does not respond to the diverse range of sentence lengths, and more attention is needed to look at the educational opportunities given to long-term prisoners. Research shows that prisoners who had undertaken education via distance learning are less likely to reoffend and reoffend less frequently than those who did not. For every 100 prisoners who undertake higher education courses, compared to those who did not, the number of prisoners who commit a proven reoffence within one year after release is lower by four to five individuals.

The current student loan regulations state that prisoners with more than six years left until their earliest release date are ineligible to access a student loan. This regulation disproportionately affects people who might benefit most from higher-level study. The Government must remove the “six-year rule” so that prisoners on long sentences can apply for higher education courses earlier in their sentence. This would give them motivation during their sentence and keep them focused on their potential employment opportunities following release.