Robert Halfon: Our chaotic prison education system is crying out for an overhaul

MP Robert Halfon is chair of the education select committee, former skills minister and former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party.

For the majority of offenders, prison should be a place where the skin of an old life peels off and a new one begins.

Education – from practical learning to mastery – must act as a kind of restorative justice that gives prisoners the opportunity to develop the confidence, skills and knowledge they need to change their lives; start over and get a good job at the end of their sentence.

For eighteen months, the education commission, which I chair, has been carrying out an investigation into the state of education in prisons.

One of the main recurring themes we heard from all of our witnesses was that education is one of the most important factors in reducing recidivism. Indeed, Department of Justice research shows that those who had undergone training while incarcerated were 7.5% less likely to re-offend within twelve months of their release.

However, the data also shows that only 17% of adult prisoners actually had a job.

Six years after the publication of the Coates review of prison education in 2016, our committee found that the ambition set out in this landmark review had not been pursued or achieved.

Almost two-thirds of prison inspections carried out by Ofsted show poor quality management of education, skills and labor supply, with nine of the thirty-two establishments inspected scoring ‘good’ or ‘ outstanding” compared to eight out of ten providers for continuing education in the wider community.

At the same time, the number of inmates participating in educational qualifications has dropped. In 2018, the number of inmates attending a course equivalent to AS level or above decreased by 90% compared to the 2010/2011 academic year.

Prison education is often paid at a lower rate than unskilled labor, which has a chilling effect on education.

Perhaps most concerning is that data shows that over 30% of offenders have learning difficulties or learning challenges, yet there are only 25 special educational needs coordinators (SENCos) qualified in all public prisons, which equates to only one SENCo for every four prisons.

To top it all off, the physical and digital infrastructure of prisons is in a sorry state, with the majority of prisons not having the cabling or hardware to support internet access, or a digital device that would allow inmates to access distance learning through courses on offer from the Open University, for example.

Now, I’m not saying that every offender should be given a state-of-the-art MacBook Pro or the ability to surf the Internet freely. But as the Fourth Industrial Revolution approaches, prisoners will need digital and technical skills not only to support their ability to learn, but also to acquire the skills needed for their future employment opportunities.

As our new report makes clear, the case for placing education at the heart of the prison system is self-evident.

I welcome the commitments the government has made to date, such as supporting my campaign to allow offenders to undertake formal learning from prison (this was not possible before). I have tabled an amendment to the Skills Act urging this to be done and am extremely grateful to Dominic Raab and Nadhim Zahawi for committing to making this happen.

But it must go further and support a complete overhaul of the chaotic prison education system as it currently stands.

First, there needs to be a culture change in prisons that embeds education at the heart of the system. The government should appoint a deputy governor for learning in each prison, with a clear and meaningful education and skills plan linked to jobs and training which would be monitored by Ofsted.

Second, there must be a universal and rigorous assessment and selection process for each inmate upon entry to identify individuals’ educational abilities and any SEND or additional learning needs, as well as their academic achievement. Funding must be properly allocated to enable one SENCo per prison.

Third, individual educational passports should be introduced, containing a record of each inmate’s learning and education needs. This would facilitate a better transfer of studies as inmates move from prison to prison. The ongoing training of offenders and the possibility of continuing their education must also be taken into account when deciding whether or not to move learners to prison.

A stronger incentive for learning should also be considered, for example by making the salary received for education equal to the amounts received for work, as long as offenders can demonstrate progress in their studies.

Fourth, companies could be encouraged by financial incentives, such as the apprenticeship tax, to overcome their reluctance and employ ex-convicts. The government must also commit to publishing a clear timetable to define the deployment of job centers in the prison sector and the establishment of employment counselors within the prison system.

Finally, prisoners must have effective digital equipment to allow them to carry out adequate online learning.

As Dame Sally Coates said, “Let there be no doubt. Education should be at the heart of the prison system.

I completely agree. The founding principle of the penitentiary field should not be only justice, but also prevention of recidivism, education being the keystone of this ambition.

I urge the government to carefully consider the measures set out in our committee’s report that would reframe learning in the prison system and ensure that every prisoner is able to overcome the challenges of their past and climb the ladder of their future.