Rough justice: Time to end the neglect of prison education

Rough justice: Time to end the neglect of prison education

20th February 2020

A new FETL-funded report aims to make prison education a priority for the justice system and to strengthen its links to further education, writes Dame Ruth Silver

Prison education has typically been a low priority, both within the justice system and for education in the UK. It is, as I have written elsewhere, the poor relation in the family of further education provision, and, where excellence exists – and exist it does – it is usually down to the determination of a few committed individuals prepared to swim against the tide rather than any deliberate intervention at the level of national policy.

At the same, the British prison system is under considerable strain, overcrowded and under-funded, and, not unlike further education, subject to reform after reform and regular ministerial churn. In these circumstances, and with the latest round of reforms holding out the promise of greater discretion for prison governors, it is surely timely to reconsider the role of prison education and to find new and better ways to realise its potential in reducing reoffending and supporting ex-offenders in reintegrating into society.

It was against this background that the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) agreed to fund the Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA) to carry out a project on the leadership of prison education. FETL and PLA launched the project’s final report before an invited audience of experts and stakeholders at Wandsworth Prison, in London, yesterday.

Written by consultant Angela Sanders, the report draws on interviews with prison leaders at 10 prisons to examine the leadership challenge in prison education, with particular regard to new structures and policy directives. It asks whether prison leaders have access to the training they need and makes a number of recommendations intended to improve and support education in prisons.

One interesting finding is that while prison governors report regular access to training and development, opportunities for heads of reducing reoffending are much more limited, with an expectation that they will learn on the job. This is somewhat troubling. While, as the report acknowledges, governors are key to ‘leading a learning culture’, the creation of a learning culture also demands a collaborative, dispersed approach to leadership, and engaged, knowledgeable staff at every level of institutional life. The report’s recommendation to increase training and development for staff is a welcome first step.

The report also calls for a national strategy for strengthening links with further education. I am not sure a strategy is the right way to go, though prison education should certainly be part of an integrated, holistic approach to adult education, but it is clear that there are opportunities for more partnership in this area. As Tom Schuller, Chair of PLA, said at the launch: ‘The links between prison education and further education need to be strengthened. I hope this report provides a platform for the future and for more effective partnership between prison education and FE.’ I hope that this project will be the start of more collaborative thinking involving both FE and prison education leaders.

Such conversations are badly needed, ideally as part of a wider re-evaluation of lifelong learning. I suspect the creation of culture of learning within prisons will require a substantial change of tack, at every level of policy, both within institutions and at the level of national government. This, for the moment at least, remains a remote prospect. Nevertheless, this report is a very welcome and useful attempt to frame the debate.

Dame Ruth Silver is President of the Further Education Trust for Leadership.

Leadership in prison education: Meeting the challenges of the new system, by Angela Sanders, is available here