Education is a vital part of how prison attempts to rehabilitate offenders and integrate them back into society. But the sector faces challenges of its own, as David Adams explores.
Education should be at the heart of the prison system,” wrote Dame Sally Coates in the foreword to her 2016 government-commissioned review of education in prisons in England. “If education is the engine of social mobility, it is also the engine of prisoner rehabilitation.”
Prison service staff, education service providers and a range of charities and social enterprises are all involved in providing education and vocational training to the approximate 79,000 people (most of whom are male) in prison in England and Wales, along with about 7,500 in Scotland and 1,500 in Northern Ireland.
“Prison education can be life-changing,” says Teresa Carroll, national head for inclusion at the Education and Training Foundation (ETF). “Sometimes, it’s the first time someone has engaged in education.”
It may also provide an opportunity to identify a reason why an individual did not do well at school: some prisoners may have learning differences that hadn’t previously been recognised, such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, or being on the autistic spectrum. Poor mental health may also have gone unaddressed.
Prison education has evolved steadily during the past 30 years, as has the system through which education services are procured. The current regime, the Prison Education Framework (PEF), came into force in April 2019. Delivery of core educational services is now contracted to four main providers in England and Wales: Milton Keynes College, Novus, PeoplePlus and Weston College. These were also the core education deliverers prior to April 2019, through Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service contracts.
Prison governors can also commission additional learning services via a dynamic purchasing system, overseen by the Ministry of Justice. Different systems, though broadly similar in aim, are used in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where prison education is delivered in partnership with Fife College and Belfast Met respectively. Novus provides education services for male, female and youth prisoners in more than 40 prisons in northern England, the Midlands, London and Wales. In recent years, an increased focus on employability skills has led it to shape services to match education and training to employers’ needs, says chief operating officer Barbara McDonough.
Partnerships with employers also enable prisoners in lower category prisons to work outside prison on day release: McDonough tells of a prisoner who got a job at Greene King, after working for the company during his sentence. He has since been promoted to a managerial position.
Many third sector organisations help deliver prison education, including the Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET), which funds distance learning courses in every prison in England and Wales; Bounce Back, which provides construction industry training; and The Clink, which runs four public restaurants and a café, all staffed entirely by prisoners, at prisons in London, north-west England and Cardiff.
An increased focus on employability has highlighted the value of digital and entrepreneurial training. Giuditta Meneghetti has taught enterprise classes at HMP Belmarsh since 2019, before which she was a department head at an FE college. She believes enterprise training is popular in part because it allows prisoners to be creative. “They come up with some fabulous ideas,” she says. “If you can get the prisoners on-side and show that you really care about their education, they will buy into it.”
Carroll says more prisoners should be told about ex-offenders who have gone on to run successful businesses. In 2019, the ETF produced a six-minute video featuring three ex-offenders who are now CEOs (see bit.ly/3nHSTvh). Carroll would like this to be shown to prisoners as part of their induction. “There is a need for people who have credibility with prisoners and can encourage them to become learners.”
The Covid-19 lockdown in March effectively shut down face-to-face education in most prisons for much of 2020. A partial loosening of restrictions in some prisons towards the end of the summer was then paused or reversed as the second wave of the pandemic gripped the UK in September.
Education providers, third sector organisations and prison staff have tried to get educational materials to prisoners without using digital technology, which is severely restricted within prisons. But Rod Clark, outgoing CEO at the Prisoners’ Education Trust, hopes the impact of this crisis will make the prison services and policymakers reconsider the possibility of limited, controlled use of digital technologies in prisons as a means of delivering blended learning, in line with one of the Coates review recommendations.
In July 2020, the Prisoner Learning Alliance, a network of organisations working in the sector, published The Digital Divide, showcasing initiatives of this kind outside the UK. They included Belgian, Finnish and German projects that allowed prisoners to access pre-approved websites or closed e-learning networks. Some prisoners in England and Wales have limited access to a secure educational network, the Virtual Campus, which can be used under supervision.
Despite the current difficulties, Clark feels optimistic. “We need to get beyond Covid-19, to get a bit more investment and co-ordination; and then I think the future could be very positive,” he says.
“It needs to be,” he adds, “given that prisoners will be emerging into a labour market that will be even more difficult than before. Giving them the opportunity to acquire skills and develop is one of the positive things that they can take from a period in custody.”
Working in this part of the sector can also be hugely rewarding. “It’s a great job,” says Meneghetti. “I had one prisoner who was released and came to get his certificate ‘to show my wife I can read and write now, because she doesn’t believe me’. That’s fantastic!”
Watch and learn
Wayout TV, launched with the backing of PEF provider PeoplePlus in 2014, turns in-cell TV services into a source of education. Broadcast content includes academic programming; a physical education slot; and local news.
Founder Jezz Wright, who is head of digital learning and strategy at PeoplePlus, says the service can act as an easier route towards educational materials for prisoners who might not feel comfortable in a classroom environment. It is now available in more than 50 prisons.
The service also now has a sister channel, Way2Learn, which provides educational programming created by the Wayout TV team. “It provides bite-sized courses of study to complete in the cell,” says Wright. “You get paper-based workbooks that you can complete to get accreditation.”
Courses include Mind Your Own Business, which features case studies of prisoners who have set up their own business; a creative design course that could help prisoners design
logos and promotional materials; and principles of journalism and creative writing courses. A pre-MBA course and a beginner’s guide to working in the music industry will be launched in the near future.
David Adams is a freelance journalist.