Teaching against the odds: education and the criminal justice system

Brian Creese, NRDC (National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy)

A few years ago I filmed a group of young people in a young offenders institution. The group was doing car maintenance and I found it an enjoyable if slightly nerve-racking experience. What sticks most in my mind, however, were the comments from the Head of Learning. Teaching in a prison, he said, was like gathering all the most difficult, challenging and awkward students you have ever met across all your years of teaching and putting them into one class.

Many teachers, he told me, don’t last their first week. If they do, however, they will probably teach in prisons for the rest of their lives.

In general we think education is a ‘good thing’ for prisoners. Most governments accept that it can help prevent re-offending. In some countries it is even considered a human right.

However, there has been a change of attitude recently in the UK: the current government views education mainly as a way of improving a prisoner’s chance of gaining employment on release, and Ministers would actually prefer to see prisoners working than learning.

Many ex-offenders attest to the beneficial impact of education in prison, and some academic studies back them up, though most are too nuanced and subtle to support any overt political policy. Ideally, of course, education and work experience together give prisoners the best chance; the publicity around the recent opening of the ‘Clink’ restaurant at Brixton prison suggested that only one of the 80 or so prisoners involved in these schemes has ever re-offended.

All this is why I was interested to read the report “Prison Educators: Professionalism Against the Odds”, from the University and College Union (UCU) and Centre for Education in the Criminal Justice System (CECJS), at the IOE. The research is based on a survey which was returned by over one fifth of all prison teachers, and it tells us a great deal about this group. They are older than the average for further education, and better qualified but less well paid, with fewer holidays. This workforce is positive about the benefits of education in prison, highly motivated and enthusiastic – but many seem to be slowly giving up.

I’m rather glad I’m leaving prison education. I feel so sorry for my colleagues remaining in this downhill spiral. The young inmates are so suffering in lack of education it’s appalling to see inmates and teachers used as pawns by college, prison and government. Trouble is no one can breathe a word of this to the outside community, so it continues while society believes the inmates are where they should be. But surely without some help from good teaching staff this will never be corrected.

Prison teaching is overseen and funded by – another acronym – OLASS, the Offender Learning and Skills Service. The current regime is actually OLASS 4 because the current system is a result of the fourth re-tendering in its nine-year history. Not surprisingly, this constant re-tendering leaves teachers feeling insecure and unsettled. OLASS 4 also saw the introduction of ‘payment by results’, which, say teachers, disadvantages those prisoners who need education the most.

Payment by results is all very well but it actively discourages low ability learners from attending any form of education because they are unlikely to complete the course within the specified time – so the provider doesn’t want to take the risk of them failing and costing them money. 

Prison teachers are experienced, enthusiastic, well qualified and have a passion for their work. But this survey suggests that prison education is no longer seen as a viable career and is losing its potential to play a positive part in the rehabilitative process.

I strongly believe the current policy of payment upon results is totally WRONG – there should be a policy to help offenders once they are released from prison, currently they are thrown out with no support, often with nowhere to live, and no job – prison education is not valued by employers therefore the offenders feel they have no option but to reoffend to get a roof over their heads. Rehabilitation of the offender is not working at the moment.

The picture I gained from reading these distressing accounts from teachers is of a service dying a death by a thousand cuts. The prison population is hovering at just under 85,000. We send a greater proportion of our population to prison than any other country in Europe and they spend longer incarcerated than in other European countries. Rehabilitation must surely be the overriding aim of the service, not simply the narrow focus on job skills.

Education needs to be a central plank of the prison system. Prison teachers must be properly rewarded and supported and, perhaps most of all, valued.

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Posted in Further higher and lifelong education, Social sciences and social policy
3 comments on “Teaching against the odds: education and the criminal justice system
  1. John Hodgson says:

    A very interesting post that throws into relief the regressive effect of education policies that fail the learner as person.

  2. Miss Honey says:

    A microcosm of the education and social policies being applied in society as a whole, but made worse by our Victorian attitudes to crime, prisoners and prisoner rights.

  3. SD says:

    Thank you for an enlightening post. I work in Adult Education with parents in areas of disadvantage. There is so much evidence on the ground and in research about the need for more, not less education for students at risk of offending (and their families), that it’s surprising the CJS doesn’t follow this ethos through to the prison system.

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