Parties have their say on prison education

17 Feb 2015

‘Our crumbling prison system is a disgrace to modern democracy. Party leaders should be ashamed that crime and punishment is not an election issue’ wrote Mary Riddell last week. Nina Champion, PET’s Head of Policy, reports on what the three parties have said about education in prison in the lead up to the election.

“This month election fever has well and truly started with less than 100 days until the election; decisions about the TV debates, the colour of the women’s battle bus and party leaders are starting to set out their manifesto pledges. However as Mary identifies, crime and prisons are not a topic the parties are talking out.

In one way this is a relief, all too quickly policy debates on prisons by parties near election time can lead to a ‘race to the bottom’. However, Mary is absolutely right that what happens inside our prisons has a serious impact on what happens on our streets when prisoners are released and voters should be aware of these important policies.

The Prison Reform Trust has been running a series of lectures by the three parties to offer them a platform to set out their stall in relation to prisons. So what do each of the three main parties have to say about education and learning in prisons?

Hon. Chris Grayling MP, Secretary of State for Justice. Conservative Party

In an echo of former Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard, Grayling said that he believes ‘Prison works but we have to make it work better’. Encouragingly one of the main ways he cites is to ‘equip prisoners with the skills they need for gainful employment upon release’ and that ‘our education programmes inside are absolutely key’.

He is proud of the increase in numbers of prisoners engaged in learning each year and that there are: ‘excellent examples of programmes of offenders gaining both professional skills and vitally important personal skills such as team work and commitment’.

He did however admit that staff shortages have slowed progress in some prisons.

As we know he is particularly dedicated to the role of education in the youth estate for under 18s and plans to double the amount of education they receive. Despite criticism they will continue with the plan to build a 400 place Secure College which he describes as ‘an environment closer to an educational institution, with a greater focus on skill building’. He says that smaller local establishments are ‘unrealistic and unaffordable’ and that the choice is therefore limited to ‘the status quo with iron bars’ or to ‘create and educational environment with a broad curriculum to try to do things better’. (The Prisoner Learning Alliance’s views on how improvements could be made to existing young people’s establishments to deliver better educational outcomes can be found in its response to the consultation on the rules for the Secure College

Hon. Sadiq Khan MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice. Labour Party

In a similar vein to Grayling, Khan also echoed Michael Howard, and called his speech ‘Prisons that work’. He was clear that if we don’t focus on rehabilitation then one outcome is a ‘massive waste of talent’.

Khan spoke against what he called ‘teenage titans'. He described the now infamous so-called ‘book ban’ as ‘ridiculous’. Although Khan said ‘We won’t put obstacles in the way of prisoners reading books’, he was not specific about how he would be more proactive about engaging more prisoners with books and reading. PET are very glad that since his speech, the courts ruled the restrictions on book access unlawful. PET were proud to support the court case and provide evidence of the impact on our distance learners.

Khan raised points about the importance of ‘incentives’ to reform prisoners ‘at every level’ and the need for Governors to stay in one prison longer to help ‘change the culture of a prison’. The importance of a rehabilitative and learning culture in a prison is something that PET are currently researching in 8 prisons, with funding from NOMS and in partnership with the University of Cambridge.

He also addresses the issue of education contracts and pledges that ‘Prisons performing well will have more control over budgets...it will be up to them who delivers education’.

For him the important issue is about accountability as he says ‘outsourcing of education, training isn’t working... who’s enforcing the contracts?’.

Khan also recognised the role of ‘agencies, charities and companies in prisons working to up skill and train prisoners’.

Other interesting policies included:

  • setting up ‘Prison boards’ like school governing boards including local education staff to bring in their expertise.
  • training some prison officers to be lead practitioners in areas such as literacy.
  • Duty for MoJ to respond publicly and transparently to the reports recommendations of a newly independent Chief Inspector of Prisons and publish an action plan for improvement.
  • Introducing a ‘value added’ measure (like in schools) to reward progress of individual prisoners from a baseline measure, including education.  

It was also pleasing to hear him refer to a prisoner council at HMP Ford as an example of good practice.

Hon. Simon Hughes, Minister for Justice. Liberal Democrat

Unlike the other two speakers, Hughes did not say that ‘prison works’ or even that it ‘could work’. He was critical of the other two parties engaging in ‘an arms race’ on prisons.

His party’s priority would be to reduce the prison population and overcrowding, particularly by diverting more prisoners on short sentences. He was clear that ‘overcrowding impacts on amount of PE, education and rehabilitation’.

Hughes was proud of the coalition’s new policy to assess literacy and numeracy at the start of sentence and said they would have ‘a relevant programme of support available within weeks’.

He also cited work that he is leading to develop a curriculum to improve education options for women in prison.  

Like Khan, Hughes also wants to see an independent Chief Inspector of Prisons and a governmental duty to respond to reports with a detailed action plan, more incentives for prisons to improve and rewards for good governors with freedom over budgets and contracts. He also talked about the idea of an ‘added value measure’ on how well education and other issues have been addressed during a prisoners sentence.

Whatever the complexion of Government emerges from the election in May, it is clear that all the three leading party spokespeople believe that there is scope for improving the way in which prison education works. One issue that will face new Ministers after the election is whether to extend the existing prison education contracts for another year or to re-compete them. PET and members of the PLA are currently working up a set of recommendations for the new ministers post the election about how to improve the way the contracts work whichever route they choose to go down. We hope that this could provide a vehicle for addressing many of the issues that the party spokespeople have raised in their speeches including clarity of accountability and finding ways to make better use of the Voluntary and Community Sector and of prisoner talents."

The full text of the spokespeople’s speeches are available by clicking on the above headings or visit the Prison Reform Trust website.