08/12/2013 18:04 GMT | Updated 07/02/2014 05:59 GMT

"The Promise That Human Beings Can Change for the Better": Nelson Mandela - The World's Most Famous Prisoner Learner

Watching Obama's touching tribute to the late, great Nelson Mandela, I was particularly moved by his observation that 'His journey from a prisoner to a president embodied the promise that human beings - and countries - can change for the better'.

It is a little known fact that during his 27 years of imprisonment Nelson Mandela studied a law degree as a distance learning student with the University of London. Although none, as far as I am aware, of the many prisoner distance learners we funded have become a president; thousands have used the opportunity of education in prison to change for the better.

Like Frank, who was excluded from school as a teenager and then spent most of his adult life in and out of prison before education inspired him to change his fate. He gained his first GCSEs in prison in his early 40s, including gaining qualifications through distance learning funded by Prisoners Education Trust. Previously, Frank didn't know how to write a letter or have a proper social conversation. He says: "I didn't think education was going to lead to a job. I just wanted to empower myself - the job was secondary. It allowed me to be my own man and grow and develop. The upshot of it has been I haven't been back to prison."

Since leaving prison seven years ago, he has been committed to giving back to society by working with the police, charities and communities to mentor young people at risk of getting involved in crime. He is now completing a degree and says learning has helped him become a better father and support his children to succeed at school.

Today, Prisoners Education Trust, along with 16 other organisations that form the Prisoner Learning Alliance, will launch our first report 'Smart Rehabilitation'. The report sets out our vision for how learning in prison should be at the heart of the government's plans for 'Transforming Rehabilitation'. We are concerned that the Ministry of Justice's plans will not work, unless prisoners are supported to use their time constructively to develop the attitudes, skills and knowledge that will enable them to play a positive role in society.

Prisoners have lower levels of educational achievement than the general public; 47% of prisoners say they have no qualifications compared to 15% of the UK population and 41% of men, 30% of women and 52% of young offenders were permanently excluded from school. Sending people to prison and breaking their links to work and family can make it difficult for them to desist from crime when they are released. Having a criminal record makes it hard for them to get a job and without the right mind set, decent qualifications and soft skills that employers are really looking for, it is even more challenging.

The chief inspector of prisons in his annual report recently highlighted his concerns about the quality and quantity of purposeful activity in prisons, the number of prisoners locked up in their cells during the day and increases in violence and self harm in adult male prisons. Encouraging and enabling prisoners to access good quality learning, not only helps reduce reoffending but also helps ensure prisons are safer places for inmates and staff alike.

The Ministry of Justice's plans are set to cause major upheaval to education in prison, even though 'offender learning' is the responsibility of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. We therefore urge the MoJ to be smart in its approach to Transforming Rehabilitation and work across the many different government departments and contracts to ensure that people like Frank can continue to break the cycle of offending through learning. We would like assurance that protecting, developing and improving education in prison will be a central objective as the reforms are designed and implemented. Only then will the government be able to achieve its objectives of reducing reoffending, leading to fewer victims of crime, safer communities and long-term savings to the public purse.

As Mandela famously said "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world". We hope our report and its recommendations provide constructive thinking in using limited resources to secure the best outcomes for prisoners and society as a whole through education, to ensure that thousands more prisoners can "change for the better".