Michael Spurr commits to "an effective education curriculum”

18 Nov 2014

On 17th November 2014, delivering PET's annual lecture,‘Using Time: not doing time, a constructive and humane regime for longer sentenced prisoners’, Michael Spurr, Chief Executive, National Offender Management Service, said he is committed to an effective education curriculum for all learners in prison.

Referring to PET’s recent report, Brain Cells: Listening to Prisoner Learners (3rd edition), he welcomed the views of people who had engaged in prison education and said he wants to work on its recommendations.

Speaking in an event at Clifford Chance, Canary Wharf, Mr Spurr added that despite challenges resulting in a combination of staff shortages and a higher prison population over the past 12 months, education is a priority for the prison service and that officers recognise it is key to reducing reoffending rates and rehabilitating people in prison.

25th Anniversary Lecture: ‘Using Time: not doing time’

“I am particularly glad to be here celebrating 25 years of PET making a really important, positive and necessary contribution to the whole debate and the work that goes on to support rehabilitation and education in prisons.

“The mission and the values of the trust are ones that I can sign up to and anyone in NOMS would wish to be associated with.

"As Lord Woolf says in their recent report Brain Cells, the trust is doing really valuable work and the report itself is worth reflecting on and taking on board by a whole range of people who are concerned by what’s happening in prisons. The potential for education to make a difference is clear and my very presence here is acknowledgement of that fact. 

“A humane approach - the Prison Service Statement of Purpose states that HM Prison Service serves the public by holding those committed by the courts.  Our duty is to look after them with humanity and help them to live good and useful lives in custody and after release. That remains at the heart of what prisons should be about, so this report is important and timely and not least because now we look after many more long sentenced prisoners than we ever have done before.

“The prison population has doubled in the last 20 years. People are being sentenced for longer than they used to be and custody rates have gone up. So more prisoners are serving longer sentences than ever before and there are more people in prison serving sentences for particularly serious offences, violence, drugs and sexual offences. 

"It is longer sentences in particular which mean the prison population has continued to rise over recent years. Because of this it is important to think about what we are doing with that particular population.

“Today there are 40,000 prisoners in the system who are serving four years or more, which we clarify as a long sentence, another 5,500 are on recall, so over 55% of the sentenced population are serving long sentences or have been recalled and there is no sign that trend is declining in fact quite the reverse as it is likely that the proportion of long sentenced prisoners will continue to increase.

“And the population has an interesting and challenging make up both an increasing older population convicted later in life for sexual offences and at the other end we have an increasing population of younger adults in their early 20s who receive very long determinate or indeterminate sentences often for gang related offences. And that younger population is a particularly challenging group, disproportionately black, disproportionately Muslim increasingly demonstrating feelings of exclusion and alienation from the system which makes their acceptance of their imprisonment even harder and puts them in a position where they challenge the legitimacy of how they are being treated by the authorities. That makes their desire to change and our work with them to stop them reoffending even more difficult, particularly for gang offenders serving sentences for joint enterprise where the legitimacy of a very long sentence is, from their perspective, difficult to accept.

“So that gives us some real challenges and providing positive regimes for long term prisoners is therefore crucially and critically important.

“Doing time is difficult. People say prison is like a holiday camp but anyone who has been or worked in prison knows that is nonsense. The pains of prison are real and the current focus of taking care of people in prison is important. The increase in suicides over the past 12 months shows us that.

“It is our duty to keep people securely and also to hold people safely in decent, well ordered prisons.

“It is very challenging at the moment, safety is an issue because of the changing dynamic of the prison population as well as because of the operational pressures we face and the issue of how we use our resources is difficult. As a result of the sharp rise in the prison population last year and a higher turnover of staff in the south than we’d planned we currently have fewer staff than we need at the moment.  But we are responding to that by recruiting staff – and overall, despite the pressure we have a good track record on providing safe decent regimes, particularly when compared with many other jurisdictions internationally.

“Running safe, secure, decent prisons is essential but we aspire to do more than that, prison is about helping people to change and offering positive regimes that do provide fair and reasonable treatment; regimes that do promote desistance from crime and a non-prisoner identity (for someone to believe they’re not just an offender or a prisoner) that provide practical skills for employment and that promote links with the community both while people are in prison and crucially when people are released.

“That is essential if rehabilitation is to be achieved. Over the last 10 years there have been significant improvements in reoffending rates for people serving custodial sentences. Overall, a 7.4 percentage point reduction for adult offenders from 52.6% reconvicted within a year in 2002 to 45.2% in 2012. Within these figures though there are important variations. The rate for prisoners serving short sentences (under 12 months) remains very high at 57.6% - and this has hardly moved in 10 years. This reinforces the importance of the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms which are aimed specifically at providing statutory supervision and Through the Gate support for this prolific group of offenders incentivising work with them to reduce levels of offending through a Payment by Results approach.

“However, for longer sentenced prisoners serving over 12 months improvements are marked – with an improvement of 7.5 percentage points from 41.7% in 2002 to 34.2% in 2012.”

“Reoffending rates have improved because we have prioritised the things that matter: decency and desistence, creating a rehabilitative culture, getting people to take seriously prisoner engagement and relationships and recognising and promoting the fact that people can change.

“Investment in services such as drugs and alcohol treatment, education, offending behaviour programmes and employment training and support (including through partnership with Job Centre Plus) which began in 2000 has been maintained through this Spending Review because it is making a difference. It has been difficult over the past year but I’m confident that once we have all the staff we need and in place and are operating our new structures effectively this progress can continue. One of the most heartening things I’ve heard staff saying as I’ve visited prisons recently is that they don’t like restricted regimes because they recognise the negative impact on prisoners and on our ability to support positive change. That is a cultural change compared with the 1990s which is a good thing because we do need regimes that support people to change.

“I have no doubt investment in education has played a key part in some of those improvements and we have made an impact on a large number of individuals - 95,000 plus are engaged in learning in our prisons. Our aim should be that everyone should have an opportunity to learn but the progress we have made is something I am proud of; 73,000 are on low level courses, 33,000 on level two, and only 1000 are on level three course.

“Facing a long sentence is hard for anyone.  Linking education to employment is important but the particular needs of a long term population do also need to be considered, especially if they are not likely to be employed for 20 years plus. This has been recognised and working with the Skills Funding Agency we have restructured Education budgets for long term prisoners. This opens up the potential for change over a longer period and for people whose risk is greater for the community to see a future and have a hope to develop themselves positively as individuals whilst they are in prisons.

“We have restructured budgets to provide flexibility for governors to provide social and personal development in their curriculum. We're absolutely committed to providing those opportunities not just for people who are going out in a few months but for people who’ve got a long time in prison because it is one of the things you can do to help change that feeling of alienation and exclusion. This will open up real opportunities for individuals to allow them to cope with their sentence and become a different person as a result which ultimately reduces harm and risk to the public.

“PET has played an important role in advocating and promoting education for longer term prisoners, providing access to distance learning courses and in its work championing learner voice and I welcome this.

“Brain Cells reflects the views of such learners and it challenges us to think what more we can do to respond to what learners are feeling. The report makes clear that it’s a relatively small sample, self-selected and therefore there’s no statistical significance but it does have a lot to say about people who've engaged in the provision and it would be churlish to dismiss it.

“Broadly we accept and want to work on the recommendations it offers. It does have validity and our approach going forward will be shaped by things that this report beings out.

“In conclusion I want to acknowledge the challenge we face with the long term population and the need for us to maintain and develop regimes that respond to that need, secondly I want to make clear our commitment to an effective education curriculum for that population and to reinforce education genuinely as an enabler for prisoners to cope with the pains of long-term imprisonment and as a catalyst for change, desistance and rehabilitation. Thirdly I want to congratulate PET for its role in promoting education and particularly distance learning for the last 25 years and I commit to continue working with you to develop and improve education in our prisons.

"In your mission statement you say education has the power to enrich, change and develop people throughout their lives – that’s true, providing those opportunities is something that can make a difference and education is a crucial part of the work that we need to facilitate in prisons if we are really going to prevent victims by changing lives, which is our ultimate objective.”

PET’s annual lecture, on Monday 17 November at 6.30pm was kindly hosted by Clifford Chance and supported by the High Sheriff of Greater London, Mr Kevin McGrath who chaired a panel discussion following the lecture with Rod Clark, Chief Executive of PET, and Jason Warr, University of Lincoln, Criminology Lecturer, Emily Thomas, prison governor and trustee of PET, Clare Taylor, Policy Officer of PET. The event celebrated 25 years of PET's work supporting learners in prison.

Editor's Notes

For interviews with PET staff, photos or further information from PET please contact Susannah Henty (PET), Media Manager: Susannah@prisonerseducation.org.uk; 07894 081 950 or visit www.prisonerseducation.org.uk


Brain Cells: Listening to Prisoner Learners, 3rd Edition, September 2014.

About PET

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 approximately 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.