For the sake of prison education, Gove must “stay involved” in Justice

12 Jul 2016

The Superhead who reviewed prison education on behalf of the Government has said she hopes Michael Gove will retain influence in the Justice sector so that much-needed reform goes ahead.

The Government promised to adopt Dame Sally’s proposed changes to learning in jails when they were published in May. But, noted Dame Sally, “we live in strange times politically”, and she was “crossing her fingers” that the reforms spearheaded by Gove would continue under Theresa May’s leadership.

“I really hope that whatever happens to Gove in the forthcoming reshuffle he stays involved in Justice in some shape or form, or that what he has started continues,” said Dame Sally. “I wouldn’t have done the review if I wasn’t absolutely convinced that he feels very passionately about prison education.”

Dame Sally was speaking last night at an event organised by Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET), a charity that provides higher-level learning for prisoners and is at the forefront of pushing for policy change.

The Dame, who made her name turning around failing schools, said she discovered a “real passion for prison reform” during the almost year-long review, and retains a “determination to fight - if necessary - for the recommendations to come to fruition”.

Visiting prisons, Dame Sally said she was “shocked and saddened” by how unfavourably education compared to the mainstream sector.

She said:

“In schools we are used to our light airy classrooms, our interactive whiteboards, our high expectations of teaching. Prisons are a world apart.

“I was confronted with the worst scenes - groups of prisoners of vastly different levels slouched in stuffy rooms doing low-level monotonous work; business graduates doing Level 1 [equivalent to age 11] maths; an aspiring builder who was banned from using a tape measure.

“Lack of education imprisons minds - I can think of nothing worse than being locked up for 23 hours a day unable to read.”

Gove recruited Dame Sally to lead his review of prison education after she confronted him about the treatment of one her pupils from Burlington Danes Academy, who was sent to Feltham Young Offenders’ Institute on remand in his GCSE year.

Visiting her pupil, Dame Sally said she was banned from bringing him even a science revision book. Due to staff shortages and administrative mix ups, the boy was prevented from taking a single GCSE exam. A predicted A/B Grade pupil, he left custody without a charge but also without any qualifications.

“I was so angry about this,” she said. “I thought here we are - here’s a boy on the edge of a cliff - and we’ve just watched him fall off.”

Shortly after relaying this to Gove, Dame Sally received a call asking her to lead his review of prison education, which was published as part of the Justice Secretary’s wider prison reforms in May.

The review called for education to be put “at the heart” of the prison system, with more opportunity for higher-level learning, more attention paid to the individual progress and needs of each prisoner, more training for staff, the increased use of technology and budgets put in the hands of Governors instead of contractors.

She said:

“Education about so much more than addressing re-offending statistics, it is about the opportunity to change your life; to live like every other member of society. It is about humanity.”

“I have met some shining examples of men and women who have had the determination to change their lives, and education is usually the vehicle. We must not deny prisoners access to higher-level qualifications through a political correctness that says it is not available for free in the outside world.”

Dame Sally said prisoners should be encouraged to take out student loans and that the Government should abolish the ban on loans for those with more than six years of their sentences remaining.

Dame Sally said her experience in prisons had made her a “much more reflective school leader”.

She said:

“Seeing the result of educational failure at the end of the line made me more determined that the priority for resources needs to be children most at risk and most vulnerable.

“We must invest money in the early years or we will continue to end up with so many men and women with a level of literacy and numeracy no higher than an 11 year old, as applies to 50% of our prisoners.”

Dame Sally was speaking as part of a panel at PET’s Annual Lecture, and was joined by HMP Wandsworth Governor Ian Bickers, a former prison teacher and two former prisoners turned entrepreneurs.

For any further information, including on the other speakers, please contact:

Katy Oglethorpe, Media, Communications & Alumni Manager -, 020 3752 5676

Editors' Notes

  • Since 1989, Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) has supported prisoners to engage in rehabilitation through learning. The charity does this by providing advice and funding for over 2,000 people per year for distance learning courses in subjects and levels not generally available in prisons. PET also carries out research, informed by prisoner learners, to improve prison education policies.
  • A report by the MoJ shows that prisoners helped by PET reoffend 6 to 8 percentage points less than a matched control group. Analysis by Pro Bono Economics shows shows that it would only take a one percentage point reduction in reoffending to be the result of that support for the benefits to outweigh the costs of the investment.
  • Dame Sally Coates' review was commissioned by Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove. PET’s Chief Executive, Rod Clark, sat on the expert panel for the review.