Wasting potential

Author: | 30 Apr 2019

Wasting prisoners’ potential to change their lives through education: Dame Sally Coates reviewed prison education for the government.

Here’s her verdict for Longford Blog on the newly-introduced reforms that followed her report….

In my own education world, I often hear teachers complaining that ministers in Whitehall move too quickly in introducing reforms without allowing them time to bed in. When it comes to prisons and the Justice Department, however, the opposite seems to be the case.  “Unlocking Potential”, the independent review that I lead into prison education at the request of Michael Gove, the then Justice Secretary, was delivered in May 2016.  Three years on, some of what was recommended is finally starting to trickle down into our jails.

Despite the delay, I welcome it as good news. Too many reports on how to improve our prisons end up gathering dust on shelves in Whitehall – though I can’t help remembering that Michael Gove did promise me, at the public launch of my report, to implement it, “without hesitation, repetition or deviation”.

Governor autonomy: a vital first step

His successors may not have fully honoured that commitment, but giving prison governors autonomy over how their education budget is spent, as is now happening and as was suggested in my report, is a vital first step. Governors have to take ownership of the education that is provided in their prisons – just as, for example, they take responsibility for security – rather than see it as something handed down from Prison Service headquarters.  When I was visiting prisons for my report, I came across governors who didn’t even know which organisation was providing the education in their jail.

In schools, headteachers are held to account for the education they deliver.  That is the strongest lever we have over their performance.  Prison governors need to be subject to similar scrutiny.  Having autonomy over the education budget is the best way to introduce that.  Progress is being made at last, for which two cheers out of three.

How it will work in practice….

It is not a full three because, under the new arrangements, the contracts for delivering education in prisons have been awarded to the same four providers as previously. What I had envisaged in my report was that there would be multiple providers coming into the system.  Now there is nothing wrong with sticking to the same four, if they are all good, but if governors truly are to have autonomy, then they have to be able to change providers if they aren’t satisfied with what is being delivered in their prison.  And I am not convinced that this is going to be easy to achieve under the new system.

In theory it may be possible, but because prisons have grouped together to work with particular providers, if one governor wants to hire and fire teachers, he or she can’t act autonomously but will have to go to the education provider, who employs those teachers.  If the provider then refuses, it is far from clear what happens next, but one thing is for sure. It is not going to be straightforward. Governors have a lot of other pressing matters to cope with rather than tackling poor teaching.

Room for innovation….

There are, I must stress, positive aspects to the new governor autonomy.  The DPS – or Dynamic Purchasing System – that has been introduced will give governors a budget to let out one-year contracts to bring other education providers into the prison to run individual courses. This will incentivise trying out new approaches and increase the range of options on offer to prison learners, especially in vocational subjects that don’t always sit easily in classrooms.

What’s not included?

To see if such innovation is actually delivering, though, we have to be able to monitor and evaluate it. And for that reason I am disappointed that my recommendation that every prisoner should have an individual learning plan – that follows him or her through the system, and allows the education provided to be measured against what has been agreed – still hasn’t become routine.  It remains, I am told, an ambition.  Yet without it how can governors be held to account over whether the education they are using their budgets to provide is genuinely meeting educational needs?

And where, too, is any improvement in IT access to promote education for which I argued strongly? Yes, there are now at best a handful of prisons allowing limited digital access in cells via tablets, but rarely is it set up to be used for learning.  That is such a waste! How effective it could be in encouraging prisoners to use their time in their cell to learn, and all without officers having to be involved to escort them to the education wing or the library?

Without radical reform, prisoners’ huge potential wasted….

My core belief back in 2016 was that good, targeted education is absolutely fundamental in bringing about prisoner rehabilitation.  That is why I argued in my report for a radical overhaul of the education system in prisons. What has now been introduced, however, doesn’t sound anywhere near radical enough. And that means the huge potential of prisoners to change their lives through education is continuing to be wasted.