15 December 2021
PLA members will be aware that the Prisons Strategy White Paper was published last week. This reiterates the government’s commitment to expanding the prison estate, recruiting more officers and a zero-tolerance approach to drugs in custody.
They also promise a step change in education, work-focused skills, training, and employment in prisons. However, while there are clear funding commitments in the White Paper for prison building, security, probation, and tagging, it is not clear how much new resource there will be for education. Any further funding will come out of the (up to) £200 million earmarked for reducing reoffending programmes. This also covers prison leavers’ accommodation, employment support, substance misuse treatment and early intervention, so it has to stretch a long way!
The White Paper makes a commitment to a new Prisoner Education Service with two key aims:
These priorities are already heavily reflected in Prison Education Framework (PEF) contracts and without more information it is difficult to know whether this will really lead to much difference in delivery. Although it is described as a ‘new Prisoner Education Service’ there appears to be little appetite for making far-reaching changes to the current system, and there have been no commitments to this as yet.
Similarly, while the White Paper pledges a full assessment of people’s ‘characteristics’ – including neurodiverse conditions early on after reception into prison, it is difficult to pinpoint what will actually change in practice. The government say, ‘Prisoners will have an English and maths assessment and screening to identify additional learning support needs and record the level of their qualifications to date’. This sounds suspiciously like the current process. Indeed, over the past year screening has improved, with education providers in England now using a consistent tool to screen for additional learning needs.
Another part of the White Paper makes a commitment to processes that should already be happening. The section on personal learning plans states ‘Over the next two years, we will invest in the digital and data platform needed to develop personal learning plans for prisoners, which will record clear career goals….in particular focusing on numeracy, literacy and qualifications that will improve their job prospects’. In theory, the infrastructure is already in place for this in most prisons, but teaching staff need more capacity and better access to technology for this to happen.
A welcome initiative is the commitment to bring in education expertise to support Governors and help them to design a curriculum and assess progress. We advocated for this in our 2020 PLA report ‘Leadership in Prison Education’, where we highlighted that recruiting from the further education sector could build a new culture, and support commissioning and contract management. The plan is to recruit new Education, Work and Skills Specialists to review and improve education across the prison – including in workshops and through use of technology. In addition, support managers for people with neurodiverse conditions will be recruited to provide follow up support across the prison. These roles are currently being developed in Accelerator Prisons. As always, the devil is in the detail and these two roles need to be a senior enough level to have influence and impact in a prison, but they have the potential to create major improvements.
The White Paper is also asking how much autonomy Governors should have and how to hold them to account for the opportunities to participate in activity they achieve for prisoners. Currently, the plans include Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) on increasing prisoner attendance in education, progress in English and Maths and the numbers of prison leavers in work. Our Leadership report discusses how the proposed and promised Governor autonomy over education was not fully implemented and calls for proportionate and meaningful performance management measures.
The White Paper includes some other commitments that have implications for education, but does not describe how they may be implemented:
· A ‘Literacy Innovation Scheme’ to challenge potential providers to trial literacy improvement programmes
· Year on year improvements to Ofsted grades, so they are much closer to those achieved by Further Education in the community.
· More use of Release on Temporary Licence
· Training prison officers on education and skills requirements to improve prisoners’ literacy and numeracy levels and prepare them for the workplace.
· Resettlement passports that cover mental health, drugs, education, skills, work, accommodation, and family ties
Following the publication of the White Paper, there is a consultation period until 4 February 2022. We will be submitting a response to this, and we would be very grateful for PLA members’ input.
Please email us if you would like to join a Zoom session on 19 January, from 3PM – 4:15PM to look at the White Paper and implications for prison education in detail.
If you can’t make the Zoom session, please do email us your thoughts, or let us know if you prefer to set up a separate call (before 21 January).
© Prisoner Learning Alliance 2023