10 things we know (and 10 we don’t) about changes to prison education

31 Aug 2017


By Nina Champion, Head of Policy 

The end is nigh for OLASS (Offender Learning and Skills Service). After having been extended (again) until next summer, we now know governor-led education commissioning is set to start from around next August. 

With the snap election and another change of Justice Secretary, more detailed information about what will happen next has been in short supply. However the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) team who are tasked with prison education reform have had a busy summer gathering views from the sector about what shape governor-led commissioning, inspired by last year's Coates review, should take.

I have attended two MoJ-hosted events – a ‘kickstarter’ event and a roundtable. Here, I will outline what we know, and more importantly what we don’t yet know, about the future of education commissioning in prisons.

To keep up to date with this fast-moving area of reform, I would strongly suggest you sign up to the Ministry of Justice e-procurement system (via Bravo Solution): https://ministryofjusticecommercial.bravosolution.co.uk/web/login.html 

If you have questions or suggestions, the MoJ reform team are keen to hear from you directly: Prison_education@justice.gov.uk 


Ten things we know

1. Prison education works

New research from the MoJ tells us what we already knew (but it's good to have it confirmed): that learning in prison has a statistically significant impact on reducing re-offending. 

2. New flexibilities are being used and there is an increase in sub-contracting

Earlier this year, three new OLASS funding flexibilities were introduced to complement the qualification-based funding mechanism: Engagement & Progression Learning, Enablers of Learning and a miscellaneous category. From what we hear, prisons are using between 20-40% of the budget for these streams, and there appears to be an increase in the amount of OLASS providers sub-contracting with community and voluntary sector organisations for specialist delivery.

3. Governors had the opportunity to use 10% of the budget

On 13 June this year, governors were advised by the Ministry of Justice that they could apply to use up to 10% of the OLASS budget to locally commission education services, in situations where clearly identified needs could not be met under the existing OLASS contracts. Due to the election and purdah period, governors were only given until 3 July to respond, and PET understands that relatively few governors took up the opportunity. Details of the prisons in question, and how the money will be spent, have not been published.

4. There is a new, broad definition of prison education

In a quiet success for the Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA), the Ministry of Justice has now established a new broad, outcome-focused definition of prison education, drawing on wording from the Coates review: “Education in prisons is considered to be activities that give individuals the skills they need to unlock their potential, gain employment and become assets to their communities. It should also build social capital and improve the well-being of prisoners during their sentences.”

This will act as an important guide for governors on what they can use the education budget for. It includes more holistic outcomes as promoted by the PLA in our Theory of Change for prison education (2015), and echoes almost exactly the definition and purpose of prison education put forward in this document.

5. OLASS will be gone – and hopefully the term ‘offender learner’ with it

First National Offender Management Service (NOMS) was turned into Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), and reference to Offender Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) has now disappeared (the term being used by the reform team is ‘Education Framework Contract’). This is not just a semantic change – it will hopefully mark the end of the term ‘offender learner’ – a label which goes against all the desistance research about the importance of labelling and moving away from the negative ‘offender’ identity towards the positive ‘learner’ identity.

6. Education budgets will be devolved to governors

The Ministry of Justice has said: “Education budgets will be devolved to governors, enabling greater control over the education provided in their prison, and enable them to tailor it to the needs of their population and the local job market.”

They add: “Strong leadership is essential to any organisation, and a powerful force for driving change and improvement. Following our reforms, governors will have significantly greater authority and flexibility (along with greater accountability) in determining how their prisons are run, including how to prioritise and deliver services within their prisons. Empowered prison governors will have the freedom to set the strategic vison for their establishment’s education programme, and ensure this is delivered in the best way for their prisoners.”

7. The potential marketplace will be wider and commissioning will take the form of framework contracts, a dynamic purchasing system (DPS) or a combination of both

At the recent ‘kickstarter’ event, an audience member asked about the widening of the marketplace. A spokesperson for the MoJ responded that changes in contracts “did not necessarily mean the end of single provider”, but was “about governor choice”. “Some governors may like the single supplier model they have. Equally, others will want to do individual purchases through DPS,” they said.

8. There will be awarding bodies for seven ‘core common curriculum’ qualifications

There will be awarding bodies chosen for seven core subjects: English, English as a foreign language (ESOL), Maths, ICT, Catering and Hospitality, Construction and Cleaning & Facilities. That means the MoJ could appoint seven Awarding Organisations, if seven different ones win each of the seven lots within the competition, or it could appoint one, if a single Awarding Organisation is best in all seven curriculum areas.  (Or any number in between.) 

The initial approach to market will officially be opened on 21 September, and the contract will run for a total of four years, from 1 August 2018 until 31 July 2022.  As reported recently in FE Week, the MoJ says it “will not directly pay for the services provided by the selected awarding organisations, but instead mandate the use of particular qualifications for successor education providers.”

9. The competition will be announced in Autumn 2017 and contracts awarded early in 2018

Here is an MoJ-produced timetable shown at the 'kickstarter' event:

10. There will be twelve mandatory requirements for prison governors, including:

  • assessment of sentenced prisoners’ levels of English and maths on first and subsequent reception and prior to release;
  • screening of sentenced prisoners’ learning difficulties and/or disabilities (LDD) on first reception;
  • development of an individual learning plan; recording of learning against the individual learning plan;
  • English and maths delivery;
  • monthly data submissions on the education delivered;
  • arrangements for the continuing professional development of education staff;
  • education providers’ staff to be appropriately trained and qualified to meet the additional support needs of prisoners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities;
  • all prison information, forms and digital systems to be available and/or designed with suitable adaptations to support those with dyslexia;
  • recording of English and maths assessment results, and of LDD screening, on a central system;
  • recording the individual learning plan on a central system;
  • use of qualifications offered by particular Awarding Organisations [to be specified] only, unless clear employer-led case for occasionally using an alternative.


Ten things we don’t know

1. What the evaluations of OLASS 4 or the pilot reform prisons say

The Ipsos Mori evaluation of OLASS 4 is yet to be published, and the evaluation of the pilot reform prisons has yet to be completed. It would be useful to have these reports published to inform the new commissioning model and learn lessons from early governor empowerment. There have no announcements about how the current flexibilities or the new commissioning model will be evaluated. In response to a question about this at the 'kickstarter' event, a MoJ representative said: "Governor empowerment is already in place now, so we are already utilising governor empowerment, so there will be a lot of learning over the course of next year".

2. Who the single awarding body will be

Bid returns are expected by 20 October, with the contract awarded on 3 November.

3. Whether it will be a framework or DPS, or a combination

Both systems provide lists of suppliers from which a governor or clusters of governors can draw to select suppliers using mini competitions.  The main difference between the two systems is the degree of flexibility. Framework contract procurements are run to a particular timetable and, once awarded, are closed to new entrants.  With a DPS, an organisation can apply to join the DPS at any time.

In response to a question about this at the ‘kickstarter’ event, a MoJ representative said governors should have the ability to be flexible. “If an employer comes to the governor wanting something, we are clear that governors should be able to provide the right learning to their prisoners to meet this employment need,” they said.

4. What form the proposed personalised learning plan will take

Recording individual learning plans on a central system is one of the twelve mandatory requirements from the MoJ, but no decisions had been made as to what this would look like and how it would combine with other ‘plans’ prisoners have. The MoJ is looking for suggestions regarding this.

5. When technology will be available to support virtual learning

The MoJ recognises that for prison learners “virtual learning offers flexibilities in what is learned, how it is learned, and where it is learned”. It sets out a number of ways in which providers should offer virtual learning, including through webinars, in-cell learning and game playing. However, it does not set out how this corresponds with the digital prison agenda, and at what stage prisons might have the capacity to offer these virtual learning environments. 

6. What the performance measures will be for governors, and what impact this will have on Ofsted inspections

The MoJ set out that: "To help focus and drive improvements to education provision, a suite of measures will be developed and published which support accountability across the system." The suite of measures has not yet been published. In response to a question at the 'kickstarter' event about the role of Ofsted, the MoJ said: “We are in continuing dialogue with Ofsted about these changes. If there are multiple providers then they clearly can’t have just one grade. It is important that Ofsted understand and examine the role of the governor. Ofsted do currently report on in-house provision.”

7. Whether competitions for libraries and Information, Advice and Guidance will be combined

The MoJ said: “At this point it is still not certain. Quite open to including them in the contracts, but all of our decisions will be based on what is right, and the method to get the best provision.”

8. What transition arrangements will be for staff

There were various questions on this important issue at the 'kickstarter' event. An MoJ representative said: “We are aware that mobilisation and transition is a huge challenge; there will likely be bumps. However, we have, and are consulting, very experienced on-the-ground staff.”

9. How the current pressure on the system, through overcrowding and staffing issues, will impact on these reforms

The newspapers this summer have been full of stories about the rising prison population and difficulties in recruiting staff, particularly in London and the South East. This has contributed to fewer prisoners being able to access education. In response to this, at the ‘kickstarter’ event the MoJ said: “We don’t want providers to lose out if there are issues with the regime, and already manage this through cancellation charges, etc. We are aware that for those not working in the prison estate, there are lots of unknown issues that they will need support with.”

10. The exact timetable for change

Although a rough timetable has been published (see above), an audience member asked whether it would be an incremental roll-out. The MoJ responded: “We are fairly sure it won’t be a 'Big Bang' for the whole estate. There will be a phased roll-out of accountability as well as with the contracts, [instead of] a hard date which comes into effect across all aspects.”



There are clearly many opportunities which arise from a more governor-led commissioning model, to enable governors to meet the needs of their specific populations more effectively, and orchestrate a more ‘whole-prison’ approach to learning. Indeed, the PLA and Dame Sally Coates advocated this. However, there are challenges in implementation - particularly in the very tight timescales set out, given the pressure on the prison estate. We know from other commissioning exercises within the MoJ (recent Family Services commissioning, Transforming Rehabilitation), and in other departments such as the Department for Work and Pensions, that the most important thing is to get the commissioning strategy right. Otherwise the opportunity to reform prison education and potentially transform the lives of thousands of prisoners will be lost, and taxpayers' money wasted.

The PLA is keen to hear your views so we can continue to feed in thoughts from the sector to the MoJ, and also develop our work in supporting governors in this new role. Please contact: nina@prisonerseducation.org.uk