Putting your money where your mouth is

Author: | 6 Nov 2023

The Ministry of Justice is promising a new Prisoner Education Service, with more resources, more apprenticeship opportunities, and even a focus on helping neurodivergent prisoners.

Longford Scholar David Shipley draws on his lived experience to ask if this pledge could help more serving prisoners turn sentences into a degrees


Here is the good news. In announcing the new Prisoner Education Service the Prisons’ Minister Damian Hinds (pictured) publicly acknowledged that “a forward-thinking prison system must give prisoners an alternative to the cycle of reoffending, and one of the best ways to do this is through education”. He’s right. Too many prisoners spend too many years staring at the walls of their cells. When 57 per cent of prisoners have a reading age below that expected of an 11-year old, it is little surprise that on release many are unable to find work and so turn back to crime.

But education for prisoners shouldn’t be just about reducing the £18 billion cost of reoffending. Getting time out of your cell to do something purposeful improves mental health and reduces the chances of suicide. When I was in prison, I studied Creative Writing. It not only meant I had something good to do with my time each day, but also gave me hope of a new path and career after prison.

The new Prisoner Education Service aims to make a real difference. They will be recruiting senior teachers as Heads of Education, Skills and Work, reporting to the prison governor. This is a positive decision; prison governors rarely have education expertise, so senior teachers could make a real difference.

Neurodiversity Support Managers welcome

The focus on neurodivergent prisoners is also very welcome. There’s little data, and no systematic studies have been done, but some research suggests that prisoners are 10 times more likely to have Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) than the average person.

The same research suggests that a quarter of inmates have ADHD. In this context the recruitment of Neurodiversity Support Managers should be welcomed. When I spoke to the Ministry of Justice, they also confirmed that they will be procuring a new neurodiversity screening tool. This is crucial. Under the current system autism assessments are only conducted at the direction of the Parole Board and, as such, are limited to lifers and those serving Extended Determinate Sentences.

The government should move to systematically test all prisoners for ASDs and ADHD, just as we already assess literacy and numeracy. Of course, this will carry a substantial cost, but there’s no indication that the MoJ has budgeted for this.

‘There seems to be little new money available’

The final big question is how the Prison Service will deliver on these goals. The tendering process for new education providers has just begun, but there seems to be little new money available. This shortage of money is reported to have caused Serco to pull out of putting themselves forward for the new contacts.

Prison education is already desperately under-resourced. This round of tendering presents an opportunity to make a real difference to the quality, range and availability of education in prisons and unless there is substantial funding made available, it’s very hard to see how the laudable goals outlined for the new Prisoner Education Service will be achieved.

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