If staff shortages mean prisoners can’t reach education, no amount of good practice will help

Brian Creese

The large attendance at last month’s Centre for Education in the Criminal Justice Sector (CECJS) conference at UCL Institute of Education attested to the new profile prison education enjoys. It comes on the back of the recently completed Coates Review, soon to be published review of the youth justice system by Charlie Taylor and the Lammy review into racial bias in the system. As we all know, history moves quickly these days, so the question on everyone’s mind was how long Michael Gove would last as Justice Secretary; we soon had the answer…

Even longer ago, a couple of months perhaps, the former Prime Minister made the former Justice Secretary’s prison reforms the centrepiece of a government Queen’s Speech. Where are those reforms now, we ask?

The official answer from our new (and already beleaguered) Justice Secretary Liz Truss is that it is all safe in her hands, but the reality seems to me to be more complicated. I had the great privilege of sharing a lift with the former Chief Inspector of Prisons (and now Chair of the Parole Board), Nick Hardwick when he arrived for the conference. He asked me what I thought about the Coates review, and I suggested that while the intentions may be positive, without either further resourcing or a fall in prison numbers it was all wishful thinking. Coates is all about making the education prisoners receive more dynamic, engaging and fulfilling. The problem is that currently there are not enough staff available to escort prisoners to education, meaning they are often confined to their cells for 23 hours a day. If a prisoner can’t reach education, then no amount of educational good practice is going to have any impact.

When he took to the floor, Nick was devastatingly clear about how deep the problems in the prison service run. According to the latest published data, self-inflicted deaths currently run at two a week, the highest number for any year since records started in 1978. Self-harm incidents are at their highest level ever with almost 90 each day, and it is getting worse, up a third of one percent in 2013, 11% in 2014, 25% in 2015. The records for assaults in prison is similar, the increase accelerating from 1% in 2013, by 10% in 2014 and 27% in 2015. Assaults on staff have risen by more than a third to almost 5,000 in the year.

Ofsted conduct prison education inspections, but their judgements in 2014/15 showed just 2 prisons were ‘Outstanding’ with nine prisons ‘Good’, 27 prisons ‘Required Improvement’ and 7 were ‘Inadequate’. Three fifths of prisoners leave prison without an identified employment or education or training outcome.

There is a financial cost too. At the beginning of July the total prison population was 85,128 and the average cost of each of those prison places is £36,259 per year.

I wholeheartedly agree with Nick’s conclusion that the deterioration in prisons has coincided with very large reductions in staff, that in many prisons there is not the staff they need to supervise prisoners appropriately, escort them to activities or spend the time building up the relationships on which prison safety and prisoner rehabilitation depend.

These matters should be of concern to us all. Proven reoffending rates remain stubbornly high at between 45% and 50% – more for those who have done short sentences, less for those who have done long. Behind the statistics lie the reality of frightened or hurt victims and damaged communities.

Given the current mismatch between the prison population and staff, Nick does not see much chance of the Coates reforms actually happening. Sobering and disappointing perhaps, but without better resourcing the prison reform process is likely to remain just another aspiration which will have limited impact in prisons and on prisoners themselves.

You can see Nick’s talk via the conference website.


Brian Creese is Co-director, Centre for Education in the Criminal Justice Sector


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Posted in Further higher and lifelong education

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