Wednesday was an exceptional day for all those involved in prison education. The Coates review, Unlocking Potential: a review of education in prison was published and prison reform took centre stage in the Queen’s Speech. After so many years of policy vacuum, apart from measures that served to ensure the inexorable rise of the numbers in prison, this was a momentous occasion. For many in the education world, it is ironic that the hero of the hour is none other than our former Department for Education nemesis, the new Justice Secretary Michael Gove.
But surely his major proposal is simply a rehashing of the academies programme for schools into an academies programme for prisons? If we didn’t like it then, why would we like it now?
This is a reasonable question, and the answer has to do with the starting point. Most local authority schools operate well and many very well. There are few very poor schools in England, so enforced change of governance, as recently proposed then rapidly dropped by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, is a solution to a non-problem. Education in prisons is another matter. Of 45 prisons inspected by Ofsted in 2014/15 only two were rated ‘outstanding’ for overall effectiveness. What is more, recent years have seen a steady decline in standards. Some of this decline is clearly caused by inadequate staffing levels. I have seen this myself when visiting a young offenders’ institute in the East Midlands last year and being told that lessons were constantly being cancelled because there were insufficient staff to escort prisoners to classes.
And this is the central point. The core responsibility of a prison is security. Security trumps all other issues, so education is not a core priority for prison management. Prison education providers are powerless to improve services if the prison management are not supportive.
The Reform Prison structure Gove is proposing will move education firmly into the governors’ remit. They will have the responsibility for improving education in their prisons, rather than the current system where responsibility is devolved. While this system is not without risks, the general view of the prisons community is that only by having such a ‘whole organisation approach’ can things actually improve. While there’s a risk that some prisons could fall back under governors who do not make good use of resources, others are likely to improve significantly. Perhaps the main point is this: without reform it is hard to see how educational improvement can be driven.
The other headline measure was for a ‘Teach First’ scheme to be extended to prisons. Actually, Dame Sally Coates’s review suggests two different reforms to training teachers for prison. Firstly that prison educators should be able to follow a programme of initial teacher education ‘on the job’, something she calls ‘Prison Direct’. This is, again, in line with recent developments in school teacher education. Secondly she recommends that there should be a new scheme to attract high calibre graduates to work in prisons for an initial period of two years. The role would be as a prison officer with an additional remit to support education.
But perhaps the loudest cheer will have been for Dame Sally’s plea to look again at the use of ICT in prisons. We all understand the potential problems associated with the use of ICT in prisons but unless we find ways to surmount them any idea that prisoners might be released ‘ready for work’ are simply pie in the sky. Prisoners, like the rest of us, need to know how to apply for jobs, benefits, housing and a host of other basics which these days can only be accessed online. At a Prisoner Learning Alliance meeting last week a prisoner talked about how hard it is to apply for a job while in prison. Her view was that it was hardly surprising that few prisoners got jobs on release; in fact it was astonishing that anyone did given the obstacles.
Positive though these developments are, it is easy to be dismissive. The policy announcements and ambitions do not address the serious issues of prison overcrowding and under-resourcing. Governors may be able to divert more money to education but they have very limited scope at present. With prison staffing teetering on the edge of being adequate, the prison inspectorate reporting more and more prisons as not being fit for purpose, and the current chaos as prisoners are moved out of Holloway before it is sold off, how can these excellent aspirations be met? Anyone who has read the recent report on HMP Nottingham, for example, will wonder how exactly good education can operate in such a dreadful environment.
But for now let us simply be glad that at long last government has noticed that, despite previous pronouncements, prison is not working, and that pious statements about prisoners’ rehabilitation through education are a nonsense until there is a programme of massive reform.
Brian Creese is Co-director of the Centre for Education in the Criminal Justice Sector