Redemption through education: the case for learning in prison

Prison education is facing challenging times.

As well as the ongoing controversy surrounding A4e (the beleaguered welfare-to work company who despite being investigated for fraud are still the preferred bidder for £30m prison education contracts in London and the East in England) the very nature of what we do is being re-defined.

Colleges and other providers have been instructed by the government’s offender learning agency OLASS to make offenders more ‘employable’ if they want to keep hold of their contracts.

On the face of it this seems like a reasonable call. Employability is important but it is not the be all and end all. An effective balance is required that also fulfils well the social and personal developmental needs of offenders and prepares them to reintegrate into society.

Whilst the new skills agenda attempts to address this, the overriding emphasis on employability may reveal limited opportunities for success. In times of economic hardship and with youth unemployment figures alone spiralling to one million, we must question the validity of a strategy that places so much emphasis on a single strand and a funding methodology that encourages colleges and private providers to crank up the churn in the pursuit of turning a coin.

Statistics reveal that prison is the preserve of the young, often uneducated offender and to be successful in their rehabilitation we must seek to educate in the round. Perhaps the greatest impact on effective resettlement is not just how employable an offender is as they go through the gate. We must not forget they will compete in a saturated job market with the hindrance of a criminal record, and this will de-motivate. For many it will break them despite often the best of intentions at the time of release. For these people it is the depth of knowledge and understanding of the situation, being equipped with the tools to react to the knockbacks, the difficulties and the hardships that will likely confront them upon release. This will define above all else, the chances of that individual resisting a return to offending.

Some prisoners will of course gain employment on release and this for them will be the key to their rehabilitation but for the many who do not it is the understanding, recognition and indeed enlightenment that comes from a full and rounded education delivered with the compassion, experience and professionalism of experienced educators that will deliver results. We must strive to redress the balance accordingly.

Compounding the difficulties we face is the ever tumultuous and cyclical round of re-tender after re-tender. The creep of privatised companies entering and showing interest in offender learning is worrying and again represents a threat to the quality of education on offer. With low wages touted and prevalence for ripping up professional terms and conditions, awarding contracts to these providers is short-sighted and in the case of A4e, embarrassing to the sector.

There are pockets of excellence in offender learning and these pockets reflect areas wherein internal stability has been maintained despite this cyclical process.

These are the establishments where staff are embedded and settled, they are often financially secure, undertaking the job for the love of it, for the difference they make, rather than the contractual rewards. They know how to teach and they know how to address offending behaviour and despite consistent change enforced upon them they manage to resist enough to maintain the core of what they do.

Management are left with the task of picking up their good work, re-badging it and making it fit the present model. These people are professional, seasoned educators and we need more of their ilk; we need more to be trained in their sphere of influence. New blood is entering the profession and whilst this is welcome it is likely staff turnover will increase dramatically with new entrants having little understanding of what really works. Frequently they are given inferior contracts to mainstream colleagues and less effective mentoring as their seasoned predecessors retire. They will be more inclined to unquestioningly tow the party line and true success will decline as a result.

To establish what works we must be looking to these pockets of historical excellence before they become too diluted by emerging ‘excellence’ as defined under more recent measures of success. If you look you will find an effective and complete education is the common theme.

For much of offender learning however it is true to say that improvement is required and it is no wonder that OFSTED have noted room for improvement in many establishments around the country when every three to five years we are again torn from our roots and thrown headlong into the instability and uncertainty of changes in funding methodology, strategic direction and often employer.

Having been through this process a number of times I can tell you that in year one following a change in employer little changes, management are focussed on laying the strategic path and contending with the operational difficulties offender learning presents. In year two we feel the impact on the ground and the tendency is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Existing systems, policies and quality procedures that are finely tuned to meet the requirements of OLASS in that specific environment, are binned by the ream and replaced with similar non-OLASS friendly documents.

In year three we start to get to grips with the revised documentation and start to make it work. At this point we are re-tendered and the process repeats. It is unsurprising this approach is of limited success.

Stability is the key; offender learning is best placed firmly in the hands of the public sector. It must be funded well and the constant cycle of re-tendering must stop. The best teachers should be sought to work within its confines and we should be charged with providing prisoners with a well-rounded and balanced education. Until we reach common consensus that this is the way to maximise a reduction in re-offending, we will continue on the treadmill.

I am pleased our general secretary has repeatedly stated her belief that we do need the very best teachers in OLASS and we must seek a strategy to ensure terms and conditions are conducive to this. Only through retaining and attracting the calibre of staff capable of turning around the most disaffected in our society, will we realise true success.

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