Justice Secretary Liz Truss and her Prisons Minister Sam Gyimah are both former Education Ministers and proud of it. So how strongly does that commitment to education show through in their latest major announcements on prison reform?
Given the mounting evidence of unstable and unsafe conditions in our prisons, safety, and not education, was quite rightly the central focus of Prison Safety and Reform, the White Paper published on 3 November. But at its launch, Justice Secretary Liz Truss was at pains to emphasise that the Government's approach is not confined to addressing concerns over violence and staffing but is also intent on major changes to help prisoners make a constructive return to society. For the first time, the paper proposes to imbed into British law the fact that prisons should be places of rehabilitation. And by any reckoning, education has a vital role to play in this.
Commentators on prison education have been keen to search the White Paper for signs of the new Justice Secretary's attitude towards the Unlocking Potential review, led by Dame Sally Coates and championed by Truss's predecessor Michael Gove. For those who believe passionately in the power of educational aspirations to transform lives, this review engendered a real sense of optimism by advocating an engaging and inclusive approach to education, criticising the uninspiring, target-driven approach that has characterised much on offer to date.
Coates' review is approvingly name-checked in the White Paper and many of her recommendations are echoed. For example, the paper calls for education to be one of the ways in which a prison's success is measured. It supports empowering governors to control education budgets; backs the need for personalised learning plans which follow a prisoner throughout his or her sentence, and supports a wider use of release on temporary licence.
This is all to be welcomed. But as someone who advocates for the improvement of education in prisons, it is what is missing that makes reading the White Paper a tad deflating. On two major aspects of the Coates vision, the White Paper is silent. Worryingly, it lacks any explicit mention of learning to higher levels or learning for the sake of personal and social growth and development, concentrating instead on the need for prisoners to be taught "basic skills" that will "help them find work when they get out".
This is not to degrade the importance of basic skills. Yes, these are hugely important for the many prisoners who enter prison failed by their mainstream education. Yes, skills to get employment on release are exactly what a large number of prisoners are desperately keen to acquire to help them change their lives for the better. But the self-development and the hope offered by learning that is genuinely aspirational rather than simply a means to an economic end can offer so much more. As Coates has it: "Education should be aspirational. It must offer a learning journey that is truly transformational and enables progression to higher levels."
The other major missing piece is the use of ICT to support education. In Unlocking Potential, Dame Sally stresses the value of technology to engage prisoners in independent and higher-level learning, calling prisons' current attitude overly prohibitive. The White Paper however contains no mention of involving ICT in learning, and Truss has not included reference to technology in her public statements.
In some ways, these omissions are understandable. Arguments about the value of providing secure access to digital learning set against the need to manage genuine risks are relatively complex. On the other hand, it is relatively easy to make the case that prisoners are less likely to reoffend if they leave prison able to read and write and with some skills to get them a job. That a prisoner might need to develop as an artist or an academic, or as a person - gaining hope and vision for their future life, or an ambition to be truly different and to contribute fully to society on release, is a more difficult argument to make.
But these arguments are the ones most worth making. We need to retain an emphasis on diverse, creative and higher-level learning that was championed by Coates, and the needs of specific groups and the great opportunities offered by digital learning should not be allowed simply to fade from view. We live in a digital world which offers vast opportunities on what it is possible to learn, to become passionate about and to build a career from. We need to allow people in prisons the chance to realise this.
As Justice Secretary, Truss seems careful to tune her messages to potential concerns of the general public, focusing on aspects of reform that are less politically sensitive. But if she is to meet her new responsibility to ensure prisons are places of rehabilitation, she must use the 'detailed education strategy' promised next year to push some of the more far-reaching measures advocated by Coates, even if this requires a bold statement of why they are important and justified. Education has a huge potential to change lives that is simply not being harnessed in our prisons. At the point when the Justice Secretary herself has branded jails "the nurseries of crime", it will take more than ABCs to give prisoners the skills, and the resolve, to turn their lives around.
Rod Clark is the Chief Executive of Prisoners' Education Trust, a charity which provides distance-learning courses for around 2,500 prisoners a year and advocates for better policy and practice in prison education.