Prison education 'in a very poor state'

Work with offenders on the new prison education review

Ahead of their new review of prison education Amanda Spielman, the Chief Ofsted Inspector and her counterpart from HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, have published a joint commentary on the state of prison education.

It doesn’t make for pretty reading.

The Chief Inspectors say that in the last five years (the date of Dame Sally Coates’ independent review of education in prisons which recommended putting education at the heart of the prison regime) around two fifths of prisons have been graded “inadequate” or “requires improvement” for education, skills and work. They acknowledge that there are small pockets of excellent practice, but conclude that the overall quality of prison education “remains extremely poor”.

Unsurprisingly the pandemic has made things even worse. No classroom education took place for at least 5 months. While it is now allowed in many prisons, it remains limited. Inspectors’ visits painted a stark picture of what remote education looks like in prisons.

“In most cases, it is limited to giving prisoners in-cell work packs with little opportunity to talk to or receive help and regular feedback from teachers. This has had a negative impact on most prisoners, and many are struggling to read and requiring closer support.”

In a survey carried out by prison inspectors, less than half the prisoners who had received an in-cell education pack said that they found them helpful. This was attributed, at least in part, to the limited opportunities for prisoners to receive feedback and support. Some prisoners waited several weeks to receive written feedback. This was because it took time for prison staff to collect packs, send them to teachers and return them to prisoners, as well as quarantining the packs between each stage. While this process happened, prisoners had no educational materials.

The inspectors note that, despite much publicity around the development of technology in prisons, opportunities to use technology for in-cell learning have also been missed. Most prisoners have access to a telephone on their wing or, less frequently, in their cells. When they were not able to enter prisons, some teachers made regular telephone calls to talk through written feedback they had provided on prisoners’ packs. Some education providers set up a phone hotline for educational support, but learners were not always aware this service was available. In at least one prison, prisoners communicated with their teachers by writing letters, a depressingly Dickensian approach for some of our more dilapidated Victorian prisons.

Face-to-face education

The chief inspectors are very clear that remote learning is not an appropriate model for prison education and urged prison governors and education providers to prioritise identifying gaps in learning and to help prison learners get back into the classroom effectively and as quickly as possible.

Vocational education and work

Since the start of the pandemic, most prisoners have not had access to vocational education. This has prevented them from developing the practical skills they need for employment on release. It’s also prevented them benefiting from the enjoyment of mastering a skill. Before the pandemic, prisoners could engage in practical activities through employment or in workshops as part of vocational training courses. Both avenues have been severely limited by national and local restrictions.

Between July and December 2020, prison inspectors found that between 10% and 44% of prisoners remained in essential work, such as in the kitchen, wing cleaning and serving meals, and in some ‘essential workshops’, including textiles, recycling and food packaging. However, in a high number of cases, many prisoners who carried out essential work in the prison did not have their employment skills recognised.

Non-essential workshops have been closed for most of the past year due to COVID-19 restrictions. This has meant learners on vocational courses have not been able to complete practical elements of the curriculum, although the inspectors did note  some rare cases where courses, such as horticulture, were taught outside or with social distancing.

The Chief inspectors report that most prisoners are keen to get back to in-person trade-based training they could use to find work on release and many are also frustrated that in-cell alternatives to vocational courses were often unaccredited.

The review

This is not the only review into prison education going on at the moment. The House of Commons Education Select Committee launched their own inquiry into prison education (the first one for 15 years) last November. We must hope that these two investigations throw a light on the deterioration in prison education and provide a catalyst for improvement.