Select Committee on Education and Skills Memoranda

Memorandum of Evidence

House of Commons

Education & Skills Committee

Prison Education

This document is the Evidence of the Forum on Prisoner Education, submitted 15th June 2004. For further information, or clarification on any of the information herein, please contact:

  Steve Taylor - Coordinator of the Forum on Prisoner Education

  Forum on Prisoner Education, PO Box 42039, London. E5 0YZ

  Tel: 020 8525 9599  Email:  Web:


NB: Further copies of this document can be downloaded from


1.  The Forum on Prisoner Education was founded in 2000 to 'increase the quality, availability and consistency of education and training within the criminal justice system'. We believe that education in prisons should be centred on the needs of the individual prisoner, for whom it can hold the key to living without crime by building self-esteem, encouraging self-motivation, and providing new opportunities after release.

2.  The Forum on Prisoner Education is a membership organisation, with members drawn from a range of backgrounds. A significant number work in prisoner education; others include campaigners and members of the voluntary sector, academics, parliamentarians, and current and former prisoners.

3.  We welcome the attention to be given to this important issue by the Committee. Whilst we have limited our evidence to the specific issues identified as being of interest to the Committee, we would welcome the opportunity to discuss any aspect of prisoner education relevant to the Committee's work.

The Assessment of Prisoners' Needs on Conviction

4.  National Standards for Pre-Sentence Reports have, since 2000, required that each report will 'contain an offender assessment which shall state the offender's status in relation to literacy and numeracy'. We welcome this new importance being attached to education, and recognition of its central role in sentencing practice.

5.  Soon after reception into prison, the new prisoner will undergo an educational assessment. The Forum on Prisoner Education has expressed significant concern over these assessments (copies of which are available from the Forum), in that they test ability only up to Basic Skills Level 1. We believe that the Offenders' Learning & Skills Unit at the DfES should implement a range of assessments to enable prison education tutors to accurately gauge any learning needs the prisoner may have.

6.  Contractors and education staff and management have expressed significant concern over the funding of the assessment process. For example, High Down prison in Surrey can receive as many as 267 new prisoners each month. Their budget only allows for 500 hours of education induction, leaving prisoners with a ten minute induction period. This is clearly unacceptable, especially in the case of prisoners with complex educational needs.

7.  When talking of 'needs', we need to consider motivation. Very many prisoners have had negative experiences of formal education, and simply shutting them in a classroom is unlikely to have any positive effect. In assessing 'needs', an assessment should be made of the styles of learning likely to work for that prisoner. For prisoners with negative experiences of education, distance and flexible learning (such as in-cell) can offer an effective means of learning and we believe that more should be done to explore and encourage non-traditional learning methods in prisons. A great deal of success has been achieved by literate prisoners teaching other prisoners to read and write - through schemes such as Toe by Toe run by The Shannon Trust. Learning is best achieved through personal experiences and thus workshops and education should be linked. Much in the way of communication and mathematics can be achieved through activities in the workshop.

8.  Allied to motivation, we need to recognise that may prisoners' lives have been chaotic and disruptive. Very low self-esteem is common, and education must be 'sold' to many of these prisoners. Prisoners need to be encouraged to learn, and shown that they can learn, and can change and enrich their lives through learning.

9.  Educational needs cannot - and should not - be separated from a wider needs assessment. A significant number of prisoners have a history of substance misuse; many have mental health problems; and few have a job or home to go to on release. Education must be an integral part of an holistic approach to assessing and resolving prisoners' needs.

The Effectiveness of Local Contracting Arrangements

10.  Since its creation in 2000, the Forum on Prisoner Education has consistently questioned the value of the contracting out of prison education services. Whilst we are opposed to the contracting out of prison education, we are at the same time practical and therefore seek ways to move forward with contractors under present arrangements.

11.  Our first objection to contracting out of prison education is that we cannot see any visible benefit to prisoners from education being contracted out. Whilst we do not suggest that prison education is worse than it was before 1993 (when contracts were first issued), we do not see any significant improvement, and believe that local education services could provide the same services equally as well.

12.  Our second objection relates to staffing. With a five-yearly cycle of competitive tendering, prison education staff understandably become concerned over their job security. The Forum on Prisoner Education joins with NATFHE (the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education) in expressing these concerns. Successful prison education can only take place when those responsible for delivery are contented in their work and feel a sense of security. We pay tribute to the incredibly hard work undertaken by prison educators, in what can often be challenging and even hostile environments.

13.  Our third, and final, objection is a fundamental moral opposition to contracting out on the basis that it leads to a profit/loss, business-led approach to prisoner education. We do not believe that private contracting should feature in any aspect of imprisonment or punishment, as profit from punishment is, we believe, immoral.

14.  In January 2004, after the latest round of tendering (under 'Project REX') was due to start, the Offenders' Learning & Skills Unit at the DfES announced that contracts were being automatically extended. This is believed to be due to uncertainty over the shape of offender education within the framework of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). The government minister responsible for prison education, Mr Ivan Lewis MP, told a Forum on Prisoner Education evening reception in May 2004 that the decision to abandon the tendering process was a 'courageous step', taken because his department was 'unhappy with the general direction of travel'. The cost of the abandoned exercise was £346,000. Whatever the reason behind the abandoning of 'Project REX', this further illustrates the problems and uncertainty faced by prison education staff, and we urge the government to clarify the future position urgently.

15.  Our understanding is that, under NOMS, offender education (both community-based and in custody) will be organised on a regional basis with one contractor serving each region. The thinking behind this is that it will allow an offender to complete an educational course in the community after release from custody. This is an excellent idea, but we fear that it is destined to fail. A significant proportion of prisoners are held in prisons more than fifty miles from home, and are likely to return to a different region to that in which they are imprisoned. Unless there is to be a consistent educational programme throughout England and Wales, a large number of prisoners will not benefit from this 'flow-through'.

16.  Information on contractual arrangements for the delivery of prisoner and offender education is often unavailable, on the basis that the information is 'commercially confidential'. We believe that this is a significant barrier to allowing greater transparency in terms of budgets, cost and performance. Contractors should be encouraged to share information to make their provision truly competitive.

17.  Targets are set by the Offenders' Learning & Skills Unit at the DfES on the number of basic skills awards gained by prisoners each year. However, no targets are set beyond Level 2, and information on the number of awards and qualifications is difficult to obtain. The OLSU and prison service should begin recording achievement in these higher-level qualifications and awards as a matter of urgency. It is equally important that the targets set reflect the complexities of the prison environment, and do not merely reflect targets set in educational institutions in the community.

The Provision of Appropriate Training Facilities within Prisons

18.  The Forum on Prisoner Education acknowledges that a majority of prisoners have basic skills needs, and we welcome the government's attention in this area. We do have concerns over the quality of basic skills provision, with deficiencies frequently highlighted by the various inspection agencies.

19.  Basic skills education is undeniably the focus of all prison education departments, largely due to these departments having targets set by the DfES and prison service. However, this unremitting diet of basic skills is to the detriment of prisoner capable of higher levels of study and we would like to see a greater emphasis on GCSE, A-Level, HND, undergraduate and postgraduate study as an expansion of the curriculum.

20.  We have welcomed significant capital investment in prison education buildings in recent years, but argue that the government needs to go much further. At North Sea Camp prison in Lincolnshire, some classes take place in temporary buildings such as 'Portakabins', although having been in place for decades they are far from 'temporary'. In the summer they are stiflingly hot; in the winter bitterly cold. These are far from ideal learning conditions. In her most recent Annual Report, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons told of one prison holding school-age children, but which only had space for 20% of the prisoners held there. It is clear that further significant investment is required as a matter of some urgency.

21.  The wider prison regime can sometimes work against effective education. In many prisons, for example, two sessions run each day, in the morning from 9.00am to 11.30am and in the afternoon from 1.45pm to 4.15pm. We would not expect schoolchildren to spent 2½ hours in one lesson, and progress must be made in breaking up these sessions to avoid boredom.

22.  The Forum on Prisoner Education encourages the provision and support for prisoners wishing to undertake distance learning courses. Currently, prisoners studying for such a course are expected to undertake their study in-cell, with some spending a little time in the education department. We would like to see prison education departments, and prisons as a whole, offer space for quiet study for prisoners on distance learning and other courses.

23.  In-cell study is often not easy. With the spiralling prison population, many prisoners are now expected to share a cell with another prisoner, who might not appreciate his cell-mate's need for quiet study. We would encourage prison education managers, the Heads of Learning & Skills, and others on the prison's Senior Management Team to consider prioritising single-cell requests for prisoners who wish to study.

24.  However, prison wings are also very noisy places, with steel doors banging, loud music and televisions, and heavy footsteps on metal walkways. We urge caution in viewing in-cell study as a panacea to the problems of space in education departments. Ideally, we would like to see a trial of a prison wing being devoted entirely to student-prisoners who wish to study in-cell. In the meantime, we would welcome prisons offering a quiet area for evening study, perhaps in the library or in a wing classroom.

25.  Many distance learning courses now require internet access, either for research, examinations, or liaison with course tutors. This presents a major problem in prisons, where internet access is not available due to 'security considerations'. The Forum on Prisoner Education believes that this shows a lack of determination and imagination on the part of HM Prison Service. Secure internet access could be provided with relative ease, by using existing software similar to that used by parents to block websites they deem unsuitable for their children. This would open up a whole new resource, not only for education, but also in terms of resettlement. Exeter University conducted an evaluation of a pilot of the Learndirect programme in five prisons, and concluded "that the benefits to [prisoners] of the presence of Learndirect facilities are significant". The continuing denial of access to the internet also further excludes prisoners from the labour market, where knowledge and experience of using the internet is often now required. The Forum on Prisoner Education is currently planning to set up a Working Group to examine this area in more detail, with a view to publishing a policy paper in due course.

26.  Prison libraries are often a haven for the student prisoner. Operated by local authorities, prison libraries usually offer the full range of services (such as book ordering) available in community libraries. Sadly, however, prison libraries often stand unused for large parts of the day, and in some cases prisoners have access only once every two weeks. We would like to see prison libraries further integrated with educational provision, with more titles being made available with relevance to the educational curriculum. We would also like to see prison libraries offer books which allow prisoners to take control of their own learning, without necessarily coming into contact with the education department - an example might be a self-teach foreign language course.

27.  Under the Prison Rules (a statutory instrument), prisoners are entitled to make telephone calls to legal advisors at public expense. We believe that, for prisoners on distance learning courses, a similar provision should be made available for contact with tutors and educational institutions. Without email, prisoners often have no means of making urgent contact with these people and agencies.

28.  Finally, and also in relation to distance learning courses, we are concerned about the effects that 'volumetric control' (where the amount of personal belongings a prisoner may hold in his or her cell is controlled - all personal belongings should fit inside one box) may have on prisoners undertaking distance learning - particularly higher education - who might have several books and other learning material which would ordinarily exceed the limits set by volumetric control. Prisons should make allowances for prisoners in this respect.

The Role of Prison Staff in Supporting Educational Activities

29.  Prison staff - from governors through to officers and operational support grade staff - have a pivotal role in supporting educational activities. Whilst the Forum on Prisoner Education acknowledges that attitudes towards prisoner education have improved over recent years, we are still aware of some staff who are unsupportive and sometimes even downright dismissive of prisoner education. Furthermore many prison officers have allowed a culture of dismissiveness to grow amongst the prisoner population. This is counterproductive to positive achievement.

30.  Research by NATFHE and the Association of Colleges found that 45% of governors and 43% of education managers said that 'conflict with other regime areas hindered education in their establishment'. In addition 34% of both groups reported uniformed staff lacked commitment to prison education.

31.  The Forum on Prisoner Education believes that education should be at the heart of the prison regime, with prisons embracing the role of a learning institution. We believe that the purpose of prison as a learning institution is to encourage education amongst all who spend time there. Prison staff, including officers, civilian staff and governors should all take the learning ethic on board, and educational courses should be available to all. An investment in staff education and development would, we feel, pay dividends to a prison service with chronic staffing problems, particularly in terms of retention.

32.  Education, as the central focus of the prison regime, should be designed to feed into other regime areas such as work and the delivery of offending behaviour programmes. Vocational education in prison rarely offers the skills needed in today's labour market, and incorporating education with work could overcome some of these problems.

Links with Employers and Employer-led Initiatives

33.  The stated aim of the prison service is to assist prisoners in leading a 'law-abiding life after release'. This means equipping prisoners with the skills and abilities to be able to meet that aim. Education can - and very often does - meet the needs of more than half of prisoners who are, through poor skills, ineligible for the vast majority of jobs. However, we believe that in preparing prisoners for release and employment, much more needs to be done.

34.  Vocational education in prison is often centred either on kitchens, cleaning, gardening or maintenance (including painting and decorating). These can be valuable and transferable skills which may enable an ex-prisoner to move on from crime, but in many of these cases into only low-skilled and therefore low-paid jobs. Prisoners need to be equipped for a much wider spectrum of employment.

35.  Some prison work can be menial, and largely useless in the outside world. Prisoners at Swaleside prison in Kent have spent time counting and weighing nails and screws for a major DIY store. In aiming to increase ex-prisoner's employability and skills, such work is useless.

36.  We admire and pay tribute to the work of companies such as Transco, who have recognised the potential of the prison population as future employees and spend time running workshops and training prisoners, before employing them after release. At another level, companies such as Toyota have funded mechanics' workshops in prisons. In the voluntary sector, the Howard League for Penal Reform is currently setting up a printshop within The Mount prison, to be managed and run by the charity as a 'normal' company, seeking business from outside. Such projects and initiatives are undoubtedly the way forward in vocational education in prisons.

37.  The Forum on Prisoner Education would encourage private sector employers to come into prisons and explore ways in which they can work with the prison and prisoners to their mutual advantage, although prisons must be mindful that they should not be used as a source of potential cheap labour. We would urge the government to explore ways in which this private sector involvement could be encouraged, with private sector employers making positive statements about the employment of ex-offenders.

Continuing support and guidance on release, including coordination with local providers

38.  Prisoners serving short sentences often face one of two problems: the education department might not offer a course which can be completed within the timescale of the sentence; or if they do begin a course, they might not be able to complete it after release. Only 6% of prisoners continue with some form of education and training upon release. Flow-through, from custody to community, is one of the biggest challenges in prisoner education today - but we do not believe it is insurmountable.

39.  Prison education departments are encouraged to explore avenues for prisoners nearing release to continue their education in the community. Due to workloads, and other priorities within the prison, education staff often do not have the time or resources to be able to do this. Education currently has a place in the sentence planning process, and we would like to see the resettlement element tied in with the educational aspects to ensure that community education can be explored as part of pre-release resettlement work.

40.  The creation of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) will significantly change the landscape of provision for offenders in almost all areas. At the time of writing, with the planned June launch having been postponed until September, it is unclear how the creation of NOMS will impact upon offender education.

41.  It is clear that the length of sentence ought not to be a barrier to learning. Prisoners should be able to begin courses that they will be able to continue and complete after release. The problem currently experienced by many ex-prisoners is that the course they were taking in prison is either not available in the community, or is available but that they are coming in at a different time of year and therefore place in the course schedule. Understandably, many prisoners then lose interest and do not pursue their education.

42.  A framework and system of records transfer should be created and instituted as a matter of urgency to allow educational records to come into prison with the prisoner, and then leave with him/her upon release. No such system currently exists on a statutory basis. Each prisoner should have the facility to keep a record of his/her achievements as well as a copy of the courses being followed. Far too many records are 'lost in transit'.

43.  If NOMS is to have an impact upon education, then it should work to ensure that, as far as possible, prisoners leaving custody can continue their course in the community at any time of the year. Prison education courses should mirror those available in the community, leading to nationally recognised and accredited qualifications.

44.  In an increasingly budget-driven and business-minded further education sector, local providers such as colleges should be encouraged to see ex-prisoners as an important group of potential students. Colleges' inclusion policies and widening participation units should be encouraged to examine how they might best work to attract more ex-prisoners to enrol.

45.  A number of colleges and universities discriminate against ex-prisoners. We have recently become aware of a 'new' university withdrawing an unconditional offer from an ex-prisoner who was due to begin a law degree, for the reason that he was an ex-prisoner. In another example, an ex-prisoner sentenced for shoplifting was told by her college that she could enrol only if she agreed (and signed an agreement to that effect) not to walk down the corridor in her college on which the shop was located. The Forum on Prisoner Education is currently planning a research project to determine the extent of this discrimination and work towards a model policy for adoption by colleges and universities.

Education, training and support for those on probation

46.  Whilst we are the Forum on Prisoner Education, our charitable aim is to 'improve the quality, availability and consistency of education and training within the criminal justice system'. This therefore includes probation and community penalties.

47.  Whereas prisoners who do not take part in education are three times more likely to be reconvicted as those that do, for offenders under probation supervision, the effects of education can be just as important.

48.  The current government has largely rebuilt the penal system, and since 1997 has introduced a wide range of community-based penalties, some of which (such as the Drug Treatment and Testing Order, and the Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme) have been shown to have positive effects. We welcome and applaud the government for their sustained attention to non-custodial sentences.

49.  However, within the framework of most community penalties, as presently constituted, the maximum time an offender may spend on education as part of a community penalty is 10% of the total sentence (excluding the Community Punishment Order). And whilst prison education has a budget of some £122m in 2004/5, the budget for community offender education is just £10m. We believe that this shows a lack of foresight in the design of community penalties.

50.  We are concerned also at the growing tendency to 'sentence' an offender to education. Making education a compulsory and integral part of punishment and supervision regimes can reinforce the negative feelings that many offenders will have of education. We are fundamentally opposed to compulsion in offender education, and believe that it must remain an option.

51.  The Offenders' Learning & Skills Unit (OLSU) at the DfES has overseen the creation of the role of 'Head of Learning & Skills' in all prisons in England and Wales, the intention being to firmly root education within prison management. We believe that the OLSU need to work with the Regional Offender Managers (yet to be appointed) within NOMS to create a similar post within NOMS regions.

52.  Probation officers - or 'offender managers' as they are to become - should be made fully aware of the educational facilities available to their clients, and undertake a scoping exercise with each client to determine whether an educational programme is appropriate. An educational record from the prison (see Para. 42, above) would assist greatly in this process.

53.  Effort should be made in ensuring that when an offender completes his community-based order, he can complete any ongoing educational programme and is encouraged to do so. NOMS Regional Offender Managers should consider appointing an education professional to offer continued guidance to those offenders who have completed their community programme, to bypass the rigidity of sentence length by which probation officers are currently constrained.

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