Notes of Caution as We Celebrate Prison Education Reform

18/05/2016 12:23 | Updated 18 May 2016

At last, the Coates review of prison education is officially in the public domain. For those committed to improving the education we offer those in custody, and for the men and women who are learning within our jails, it has been a long wait. The reforms go further than expected in tackling some of the failings of the system, and news that the Ministry of Justice will, in theory, accept all Dame Sally's proposals in full, offers cause for celebration. But as we celebrate, we should not ignore the context in which the reforms will seek to operate - and the serious security and financial issues that will continue to burden Governors, however much freedom they are offered.

When the Justice Secretary Michael Gove commissioned Dame Sally last September I was delighted to be asked, on behalf of Prisoners' Education Trust (PET) to be a member of the expert panel to support her work. It was quite a commitment. Over 500 submissions of evidence from prisoners, teachers and others, 17 separate prison visits and 15 half-day review meetings later, the chronic issues facing the education system in our prisons became all too clear.

And what of the findings? The first point to make is that they generally confirm the diagnosis of organisations with hands-on experience of working in the sector. The Prisoner Learning Alliance - made up of 23 experts in the prison education field - outlined serious issues in prison education contracts in a briefing to the Government last year. The PLA found a lack of clarity over who was accountable for education; a lack of flexibility to meet prisoner needs; scant educational progression; barriers to using prisoners and voluntary organisations to support education; lack of access to digital technology and poor support for transition on release, among other shortcomings. Dame Sally's review picks up on all these themes, and recommends bold measures to address them.

In visiting prisons, I am continually struck by the conviction that education and custody staff, careers advisers and resettlement teams all wanted to achieve positive outcomes for prisoners. But I am also struck by the recurrent message, explicit or implied, that if it were their own money they were using, they would organise support differently and achieve more with it. Essentially the Coates review meets this demand, giving prison Governors a lot more freedom to set their own rules, subject to strict measures of accountability. This includes giving prisoners the opportunity to access higher-level learning, and to use technology to aid learning, both of which PET regards as essential.

I believe these freedoms can release the potential to achieve in our prisoners and support their future as constructively engaged citizens on release. But alongside this, I will make three points of caution as we see this becoming a reality:

1. Just because a prison Governor has the freedom to use his or her budgetary freedom to fund pretty much any form of education it will not give the ability to fund every form of education. There is potential to make money go further, but there will not be a whole lot more cash and austerity will still mean hard choices over priorities;

2. Freedoms will allow Governors to achieve imaginative and creative solutions; but it will also enable them to make mistakes. Politicians will need to stick to their statements about supporting prison leaders when risks and judgements go wrong; sustained and consistent political leadership (and that means beyond the 23 June referendum) is essential for these reforms to work;

3. Implementing change on this scale in any organisation carries huge risks to the delivery of the service. Middle managers and staff become unsure about future direction and even uncertain over who will employ them; senior managers can become bogged down in issues of governance and contracts and lose touch with day-to-day demands. That risk is even greater for a service facing huge pressure to uphold the basics of safety for prisoners and staff, and prisoners will struggle to learn much if they feel unsafe or lack the basics of human dignity. Effective support for managers therefore will be essential to achieve the ambitious results we are hoping for.

So the route to achieving improvements to prisoner education is hedged with risks and pitfalls. But it is the right journey to be embarking on, and Dame Sally's vision for a prison system with education at the heart is a great way to start. I, and the rest of PET, looks forward to working to support prison governors, officers, teachers and prisoners themselves every step of the way.

PET provides funding for around 2,000 people a year to complete distance-learning courses while in custody. PET also advocates for improvements to the education offered within our jails so that every person in custody has the opportunity to achieve their potential and become more than just a prisoner.