If one of the key themes of today's Queen's speech was to "increase life chances for the most disadvantaged," it is difficult to imagine a set of reforms that could have a bigger and more immediate impact on this than those outlined in Dame Sally Coates' review of education in prisons.
More than any other reform measure, education has the power to break the cycle of reoffending. According to the latest figures from the Ministry of Justice, over a quarter of all offenders reoffend within the next year, a statistic that has changed little since 2003. This inertia suggests that there is an immediate need for change in approach to helping prepare inmates for life after prison.
Research shows that of those prisoners who engaged in education between 1995 and 2014, 24 per cent were more likely to find employment than those who did not. Introducing modern education styles and technology, as well as giving education a more central place in the reform process, will give us the best chance of helping offenders make a valuable contribution to society on their return.
Offenders need to be equipped with the right skills and have relevant experience to meet the needs of potential employers. Effective individual learning programmes to meet learners' requirements at the right time in their sentence is paramount to supporting their future chances. At the moment, an inflexible model of education and training is being shoe-horned into prisons. It is not based on the specific needs of offenders in custody.
Governor autonomy and ownership is key to the success of the proposed reforms. It can create a learning environment which puts the individual education needs of the offender first, alongside better aligned and shared performance measures between Governors and providers. Giving the leadership of individual prisons the ability to respond to inmates' needs and tackle specific challenges as they emerge should improve each prisoner's chances of getting the training and education they need.
There is a direct correlation between getting a decent education while in prison and being able to live a productive, law-abiding life on the outside. We must enable our prisoners to do this or we are failing them and the communities to which they return.
But it's not enough to provide opportunities for education, we need to explore incentivising participation with both ROTL (release on temporary licence) and early release. This can have a profound impact on encouraging engagement from inmates. Resistance from prisoners to education continues to be a barrier to reform, and by linking to benefits, such as early release, it can persuade even the most reluctant to make a greater effort to improve their skill set and employability.
Innovations such as e-learning are core to helping deliver on these reforms. New technology and improved IT is an opportunity for the prison service to establish continuity of learning in an environment that is very transient. Prisoners are frequently moved around, often at short notice and breaking established routine can lead to higher falloff rates for training and courses. Learning that travels with them provides stability and reduces disruption. Modern educational technology can help a pragmatic approach to managing and enhancing prisoner education, working hand-in-hand with increased Governor autonomy.
Access to tablets, computers and the internet shouldn't be seen as a luxury. Using technology is a life skill, and depriving prisoners of access can lead to them being ill prepared to deal with demands of the workplace and outside world generally. Ex-offenders with limited IT skills will struggle to fit the desired candidate profile for many employers in an increasingly digital economy. This is effectively de-skilling them and damaging their employability, again potentially feeding into the reoffending cycle.
The Coates review presents a real opportunity to put education 'at the heart of the prison regime' and give some of the most disadvantaged people in society a second chance. The idea of a 'whole prison approach' where Governors and providers of all services are working together to aid continuity and consistency of services, with education at the core, is essential to break out of the reoffending rut, and give the best possible chance for all to change for good.
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