The other day, the boffins at TQUK noticed a story on the FE Week website that tickled our cockles. The story detailed the plans by the Department of Justice to invite future participation in a tendering process to appoint single awarding organisations for seven areas of study. Education in prison is usually a fraught topic, too often marred by a polarising discussion, where on the one hand is advocacy  for punitive approach to incarceration (where education is seen as a privilege) and on the other the argument that education is a key tool in reformation and rehabilitation. It is between the two poles of this argument that money swishes about.

Education in prison is also an aspect of FE and assessment that is rarely discussed, partly for its fairly niche area of provision, partly for emotive arguments like the one above. Prison education is a test of our fundamental assumption that education and qualifications – and by extension the attainment of knowledge – will improve someone’s life. But prison education is about to become quite important to many FE institutions, training providers and awarding organisations. So, TQUK thought we’d provide a brief overview of the state of education in prisons, with emphasis on qualifications and apprenticeships in particular, to give a sense of what to expect.

To get a sense of what is going on, we have to go back to a different era – the 1970s – to understand why this is all happening.

The 1970s were an enlightened time for education in prison, particularly after the creation of the Open University, which allowed prisoners to continue their education during their sentence and exit prison with qualifications in various areas, with prisoners being able to complete degree level qualifications, and even Masters degrees and PhDs.

The argument is strong for investing in more learning in prison. There is a large statistical relation between prisoners that achieve qualifications in prison and a lower level of reoffending. This is not only good for society and the prisoners themselves, but also makes sense economically. The cost of imprisoning an individual is incredibly high compared to the modest cost of educating them. In 2016, of 94, 700 prisoners, 47% had no formal qualifications and 43% were found to be working below level 3 English and Math. And of the 75,000 prisoners released in 2016, 75% moved into unemployment and 46% reconvicted within 12 months. Reoffending prisoners costs the UK taxpayer £15B per year.

Today, the state of prison education is worrying. Between 2013-2014, many UK prisons were considered either Requiring Improvement or Inadequate by Ofsted. Reasons cited for these poor scores were a lack of computer time, few tutorials on prospective modules and few or no tutor visits from institutions like the Open University. If a person is unable to fit back into society, a return to crime is more likely. Despite these facts, the number of prisoners doing OU degrees dropped from 1,722 to 1,079 since 2010.

Since the 2008 credit crunch, cuts to government expenditure have put pressure on educational services conducted in prisons. Usually, these services are the first to be cut in hard times. And cutting funding to such programs present greater difficulties to staff than cuts to a normal educational institution. 20-30% of prisoners have some kind of learning difficulty. 47% have no qualifications at all. To make matters more difficult, many prisoners have not had experience in education, and those that did usually had bad experiences. The number of level 3 or above qualifications supported by the OLSS has halved since 2010. The government’s emphasis on providing basic numeracy and literacy skills, while laudable, has taken funding away from higher level qualification offers, and as a result prisoners aged 24 or over no longer have free access to level 2 or above qualifications. Some have to apply for loans.

There are other issues with the prison system. In 2016, Dame Sally Coates released a review of UK prison education titled Unlocking Potential: a review of prison education, and the report called for an overhaul on how education is delivered in prisons.  The quality of the teaching, despite the presence and hard work of many very good teachers, is below the level of quality that is required. There is a need for accountability, proper training of high quality recruits and quality assurance of the education that occurs in the classroom.

There is also a problem of consistency in education delivery. Because of the nature of their sentences, prisoners often have to be moved between institutions, which can disrupt the learning process and mean going into institutions where staff are not well equipped to carry on the education. The institutions that deliver the education (third party organisations, usually private companies) are too fragmented so that overall good practice is patchy and inconsistent. There are too many organisations involved in educating  prisoners and securing employment for them after they finish their sentence. No single point of accountability and responsibility creates an increased likelihood of confusion, bungling and frustration.

One of the main suggestions of the Coates report was to give more autonomy to prison governors. Governors, in Coates suggested model, would be responsible for ensuring the quality of education in their prisons and should have a right to design the delivered curriculums. It was also recommended that every organisation must use a consistent and rigorous assessment mechanism to judge their performance. Performance measures for governors and education providers should include assessment of their success in building partnerships with external providers of further education.

The report also recommended the creation of a Prison Apprenticeship Pathway that will allow prisoners to work towards an apprenticeship while in prison, and being matched up with employment once their sentence ends. This is vital for prisoners going into further education. In 2012, fewer than 1 in 8 prisoners were released into an apprenticeship and numbers haven’t budged much since then. This is, of course, a good piece of news for apprentice assessment organisations that will assess the work of prisoners working towards an apprenticeship in this new end-point assessment landscape. Providing a pathway to prisoners to complete an apprenticeship will be incredibly valuable in securing employment after their sentence ends.  This continues the general theme of a series of suggestions from the report that suggest prisoners that complete qualifications in prison will not have to repeat them once outside to validate their progress. The theme also suggests that providers deliver career advice, job placement services and whatever other professional help they can give. This will be aided by a section in the report that emphasising that prison apprenticeships are geared to fill gaps in local economies.

In addition to how apprenticeships are going to be delivered throughout England, the prison education system is going through similar changes, with an emphasis on improving quality, results and savings money-wise. Before, there was, more or less, an oligarchy of organisations providing prison education to their own fiefdoms, similarly with how the railroads are operated today. Four OLASS contractors covered prison education in England: NOVUS (the Manchester College Group), Milton Keynes College, Weston College and People Plus. Manchester College delivers prison education to London, the north-east, the north-west, Kent and Sussex, and Yorkshire and the Humber. Milton Keynes College covers the east and west Midlands and south central. People Plus holds the contract for the east of England. Weston College holds the contract for the south west.

 Despite reforms being put on hold for another year, prisons will most likely open up a whole new area for both training providers and awarding organisations (AO), and it is incumbent upon AOs like us to provide the best possible service to this difficult area of education. Those we serve - the offenders that serve their time - are given the opportunity to turn their lives around and become productive and valuable members of society.

To keep up to date with the latest news and incisive commentary, return to our blog or follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

See you out there!