Closing the Education Gap for Prisoners

Author: | 28 May 2023

Prison is often described as ‘a microcosm of society’ but that bears little resemblance to what goes on behind the walls, reports our current Longford Scholar Carolyn*, who is doing a PhD in women’s education provision in prisons. So much potential is going to waste because of the failure of prison education to provide the challenges that match the needs and hopes of prison learners.

During my induction at my first prison, like all new prisoners, I undertook initial education assessments. These are designed to provide a snapshot of ability. The prison teachers then looked at the floor while explaining to me that prison rules required me to undertake Level 2 English and Maths qualifications, despite me having been a teacher before my interaction with the criminal justice system, with a degree in English Literature, a PGCE and a Masters degree in education. My experience of education in custody was from the start characterized by frustration, inflexibility and short-sightedness.

No other accredited qualifications were available at the prison. Instead, I applied for an external course funded by the Prisoners’ Education Trust. I chose Copy Editing but, when I was transferred to a different prison, my course book was lost in the move. I was told I was unable to request new materials or take on a new course without completing the first.

Failing has no consequences

In 2021-22, Ofsted inspections were carried out in 22 prisons. Only one was deemed to be offering a decent standard of education. If similar results had been reported by the same organization for 22 schools outside the prison walls, urgent action would have been taken, new staff brought in, and ‘special measures’ imposed. In prison, such poor judgements appear to have no consequences at all.

The 2022 Ofsted report of my first prison found that the education department ‘requires improvement’ across all five of its categories. Whilst this two-word judgement captures much of my experience there, however, it does not reflect the handful of wonderful, supportive and inspiring teachers, committed to improving the attainment and prospects of their learners. If only they could be given autonomy to do their jobs, and offer basic training in any areas learners want to upskill in, real and positive change could be achieved.

The ups and downs

My second prison was at the other end of the M4.  In contrast to the first, it seemed to be an educational utopia with a much wider curriculum, including many qualifications on offer, all of which were consistently oversubscribed. I jumped at the opportunity to take the Level 2 Fitness Instructor course. And when I wasn’t in the gym, I could usually be found in the gardens doing a horticulture qualification.

When I was released from prison towards the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, this learning became the foundation for a lockdown project to redesign part of my parents’ garden. Both of the courses I took in that second prison also arguably benefitted my mindfulness and wellbeing but still I was left wondering to what extend they had been successful and elevating in an educational capacity.

Employed as a Teaching Assistant at the second prison, my role was to support other prison learners with the Functional Skills courses (equivalent to GCSE level in English and maths). Those who made progress took pride in their achievements, but I also noticed that some made little-to-no progress. When I asked them about it, they openly explained that they failed the exams on purpose to ensure that they could stay on the course, in a warm and dry classroom, with ready access to biscuits. If they had passed it, they said, it would have automatically resulted in being timetabled to work in the gardens or kitchens.

Gender stereotyping

Like many others in prison, I experienced the disparity that exists in the regime there between the systemic dismantling of the self and the confiscation of agency on the one hand, and the expectation that I would better myself and magically emerge rehabilitated on the other. The futility and Kafka-esque routine of prison dampens motivation and aspiration. Yet prisons are teeming with untapped potential desperate to be harnessed.

As a minute 4% of the total prison population in the UK, women often feel sidelined in a prison system that is not built for them. The education arena is no different. As an education offer, hair and beauty courses cater for a tiny proportion of the female cohort, but the reality is that women in prison want to improve their circumstances as long as there is relevant opportunity. Less gender-stereotyped courses would be enthusiastically received. Accredited and practical courses such as catering and hospitality are, to be fair, becoming increasingly more available in prisons. This is excellent progress but there is still a long way to go to meet the needs of women in prison.

What success looks like

There is potential for prisons to reduce radically the cost of reoffending (standing at £18.1 billion per year, according to published Ministry of Justice figures in 2019) across the board. At the very least what is needed is a review of the current limited education offer for women and the introduction of some intelligent changes. The availability of education at an appropriate level is paramount, as is curriculum content that will support a woman to invest in a positive future on release. Access to improved digital learning tools, and also supervised access to the internet, would help to level the playing field, especially for those taking distance learning courses.

My experience of prison education was mixed but it has given me the blueprint for my research PhD – exploring women’s experiences of, and access to, education in prison. With the support of a Longford Scholarship and mentor, I am keen to begin exploring a gender-responsive and trauma-informed approach to education in women’s prisons. This would mean that women in prison have access to education opportunities to help them elevate their circumstances and live a positive future, free from crime. This could have a significant positive impact on intergenerational offending, and hence reducing offending rates for both men and women.

 (*Scholar’s name has been changed)

If you feel you could benefit from a Longford Scholarship, or know someone who could, contact Clare Lewis for details about how to apply.