Notes on Coates

31 May 2016

As a ‘superhead’ at a West London school, Dame Sally Coates “spread her magic dust over the lives of hundreds of young people,” said Michael Gove at the launch of the Unlocking Potential review. Now he hopes she will do the same for the country’s prison population.

All of Dame Sally’s recommendations have, in principle, been accepted by the Government. But what does the promise to put education “at the heart” of the prison system actually entail? With the help of Prisoner Learning Alliance members and other stakeholders, we examine some of the key aspects of the report, and ask if they really will work magic.

Governor responsible and accountable for education

  • Governors should be free to design a framework of incentives that encourage attendance and progression in education.
  • Governors/providers free to design curriculum that meets individual needs
  • Ofsted to carry out inspections on same framework as adult skills sector

At her review’s launch, Dame Sally spoke of a “fundamental flaw” in the fact that the people ultimately responsible for education – the Governors – do not have the freedom or autonomy to lead. “The best Governors are trying to facilitate the best type of education, but they are often doing it with one hand tied behind their back, or by bending the rules rather than being enabled by them” she said.

Just as prisons will now be compared on reoffending rates and levels of violence and self-harm, so too will Governors be judged on the education they provide. Ofsted should be “free to inspect prisons with as much rigour as they do schools and colleges”, says Coates. Educational performance should not be bundled in with ‘purposeful activity’ as it is presently, but should receive a separate, distinct assessment. And it should not be possible for a prison’s overall performance to be more than one grade higher its mark for education. “It is inconceivable”, says Dame Sally, “that a prison should be deemed exceptional when its education is rated as inadequate.”

John Attard, National Officer for the Prison Governors Association (PGA), says while he in principle welcomes more autonomy and accountability for those leading prisons, there is a potential contradiction in the fact that Governors will be encouraged to act ‘creatively’, while also been evaluated for achieving consistent outcomes. “To produce a measurement system that works is a mammoth task,” he says. “The challenge is how to produce reliable measures of success, while incorporating the need to transfer prisoners between autonomous prisons and measure outcomes after release.”

Focus on individual learning & progress

  • Every prisoner assessed at gate and given a Personal Learning Plan 
  • Governors/providers should adopt a “whole-prison approach” identifying, supporting and working with prisoners with learning difficulties or disabilities (LDD) 
  • Governors should be able to use budgets to fund learning at Level 3 and above

A key part Dame Sally vision of “unlocking the potential” in every prison learner is the adoption of Personal Learning Plans, which will travel with prisoners in a digital format throughout their custodial sentence. 

The current diet of Level 1 and 2 qualifications is, said Coates, “trapping prisoners in a cycle of low aspiration”

Melanie Jameson, Chair of the Dyslexia Adult Network, says she is “delighted” at the commitment to properly assess, and then properly support those with LDD. “This is indeed a breakthrough,” she says. “There is every hope that, at last, prisoners with LDD will have their needs recognised so they can participate in education and training provision which takes account of their differences.”

Jacob Dunne, a former prisoner who is now studying for a degree with the Longford Trust, says he hopes these measures will help secure a “shift from a culture of security to a culture of humanity” in prisons: “More variety in courses, clear progressive opportunities and personally tailored plans and assessments all start to put individuals in custody first, and treat them with dignity.”

Improving teaching

  • Threefold strategy to develop the teaching workforce: attracting and training new teachers; attracting experienced teachers; and providing high quality professional development for the existing workforce
  • More use of prisoners as peer mentors and as teachers

“There aren’t enough great teachers in our prisons,” were Gove’s words at the launch of the Coates review. Dame Sally spoke of teachers feeling “worn down” by the challenges and barriers they faced – the lack of investment in equipment; classrooms that were “not fit for purpose”; and pay that is lower on average than their counterparts in mainstream education.

Prior to publication, there was speculation that Unlocking Potential would introduce a recruitment scheme for graduate teachers. In fact the ‘Teach-First style scheme’ has been designed for prison officers, who by virtue of being graduates are expected to have a positive effect on the learning culture of the wings.

As for teachers, the report places just as much emphasis on recruiting experienced teachers and improving training for existing staff as it does on attracting new blood. Charlotte Weinberg, from Safe Ground, says she “applauds the emphasis on training and support for officers and teachers who are pivotal in the motivation and progression for many learners”. The University and College Union, however, has concerns that giving Governors discretion to change education providers will expose prison teachers to yet more upheaval. “Casualisation is bad for staff and bad for education,” says Policy Officer Angela Nartey. Neither does Unlocking Potential make any moves to address pay, which Nartey says is the most common complaint among her prison teachers. “The systematic failure to pay staff properly for the work they do created a serious tension between their professional and vocational commitment to their students and the fact that they are performing unpaid labour,” she says.

The report celebrates the positive impact of peer mentoring, something that Angela Cairns, CEO of the Shannon Trust, welcomes. “This echoes the experience of our learners who are often reluctant to engage in a formal classroom background. The value of a one-to-one approach cannot be understated for both learners and peer mentors who gain skills, grow in confidence and personal development,” she says.

Prisoners, who can make a powerful impact as peer mentors, listeners and distance-learning coordinators, should not stop there, says Dame Sally. They are an “untapped resource”, she says, and there is “no reason why they should not also be involved in teaching”.

Embedded learning, with opportunities for creativity

  • Governors and providers should use a range of methods to deliver education, including embedded learning and blended learning 
  • There should be no restriction on the use of education funding to support creative arts, personal and social development opportunities, and family or relationship courses

Focusing on individual progress and potential means extending the definition of what education means – from a purely classroom-based approach, towards learning taking place in workshops, kitchens and gyms.

Sports and arts, which form a “critical part of education and self-worth” are currently “underused” in prisons, says Dame Sally. Alison Frater, chair of the National Alliance for Arts in Criminal Justice, says she is “enormously encouraged and cautiously optimistic” about the review. “It’s about time that innovative arts companies were welcomed and championed by the Government,” she says. “They know how to unlock potential. They inspire - enabling those with little or no voice to be heard, seen and understood through art, music, literature, film and dance.”

Sarah Turvey, from Prison Reading Groups, says: “We welcome both the recognition that prisoners need flexible and imaginative initiatives to make them active learners, and that education funding should be used to support this process. Informal activities like reading groups help develop an appetite for learning and an awareness of its role in living a constructive and fulfilling life.”

More through-the-gate support

  • Data should be collected and reviewed to evaluate the success of the CRCs and other agencies in supporting ex-offenders to obtain and sustain employment, training and/or education on release.
  • There should be an increase in employment links and opportunities alongside education to reflect a more integrated vision of progress ‘through the gate’

The current system of providing support to people after leaving custody is “well-intentioned but a mess”, said Dame Sally at her review’s Westminster launch. “There is no use getting it right in prisons if there is no through-the-gate support.” Her report references prisoners being frustrated at being asked the same questions by different agencies working in the prison. “The whole system needs streamlining, with clear accountability and responsibility,” she says.

Prisoners need to be better prepared to find employment on the outside world, says Dame Sally. This is can be achieved by making the work done in prison more relevant, so that even a rag-cutting workshop has opportunities for progression. Unlocking Potential also strongly advocates increasing the use of ROTL (release on temporary licence) so that prisoners can attend college or work placements. Again, this will come down to the discretion of individual Governors.

Dame Sally puts responsibility at the doors of employers to support people in custody and employ them after release; and on further education institutions to allow former prisoners to continue education. Notably, universities should “review their current system for risk assessments on those with criminal convictions to ensure that all applicants are treated in a just and transparent way"

More use of technology

  • There should be a prompt and rigorous strategic review of the Virtual Campus (VC) to assess if and how it can be made fit for purpose.
  • Governors should be allowed to develop an approach that allows suitably risk-assessed prison learners to have controlled access to the internet

Technology is woven into Dame Sally’s vision of modern prison education – it is presented as essential, for example, to engaging prisoners in higher-level learning, and in allowing them to forge relationships with outside employers. The Virtual Campus, though a good concept, was found to be “under-utilised, poorly located [and] not working effectively” in visits to prisons. Meanwhile current regulations on the internet are “overly-restrictive”, preventing access to a “wealth of free educational resources available online”, as well as opportunities to look for employment and maintain family ties. Dame Sally praises initiatives to broaden the use of technology, such as the in-cell technology that is being pioneered at HMP Thameside, and which should "soon be commonplace".

Dame Sally was supported, in what might be the review’s most controversial aspect, by Gove, who said at the review's launch that governors should develop an approach which risk assesses prisoners as individuals “rather than apply worst-case scenario to all”. PET’s Nina Champion, whose research on technology in prisons exposed major problems, welcomes this resolve. “Despite some headlines about ‘treats for lags’ the Justice Secretary has agreed to the recommendations and told Governors he will ‘back them’ to take risks,” she says. "This political courage should be applauded as technology is vital to a 21st century prison system with education at its heart.”

PET's CEO Rod Clark, who sat on the expert panel of the Coates review, wrote a blog about this experience, examining the risks that come with Governor autonomy. Read it here.