Coates: I'll continue to fight for my reforms

27 Jul 2016

Dame Sally Coates said she had discovered a “real passion for prison reform” while undertaking her review of prison education, and was now prepared to fight for her recommendations to go through.

Noting that we live “strange times politically” Dame Sally said she was “crossing her fingers”, that her recommendations would be adopted, but was meanwhile “happy to stand up on any platform, write to the Daily Mail and say or do anything” to push for this to happen.

Dame Sally was delivering Prisoners’ Education Trust’s Annual Lecture on 11 July. She was joined in a panel by Ian Bickers, the Governor of HMP Wandsworth, as well as a former prison teacher and two ex-prisoners who are now entrepreneurs.

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

Michael 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.”

She spoke of the importance of countering a “shut-them-up-and-throw–away-the-key mentality” among the public.

“The minute you go into prisons and meet prisoners and hear their stories, you realise that maybe if you were to have a life like that, you’d be there too,” she said. “You begin to empathise, to really see the man or woman behind the crime, and the person they were before they committed that crime.”

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

HMP Wandsworth Governor Ian Bickers said that from his own experience, there was often a fine line between those within custody and those on the outside. 

“My own personal journey of education started badly,” he said. It was only for the grace of God, and a good PE teacher, that I did not find myself being one of my own customers, to be perfectly honest. But I have seen the power of education, not just for me on an individual basis, but to family members and also to the prisoners in our care.”

Ian said he had “ripped up and thrown away the old rule book” since Wandsworth was named a ‘reform’ prison and he, as Governor, was given budgetary control over education. He has started to offer Level 3 qualifications and is training an “army” of men to work alongside the prison officers as education peer mentors.

“We are trying to put learning literally at the centre of everything we do, not to just focus on Level 1 qualifications, because that pays the bill, but to actually do the right thing. That’s the important bit.”

Fellow panellist Laura Firth wrote to Dame Sally after Unlocking Potential’s publication, to offer her congratulations and share some of her own experiences of teaching in prison. Entering as a trainee, Laura said she had been “absolutely shocked” by the lack of support for teachers and the poor quality of education offered the men.

“For anyone who’s ever been in a classroom in a school or college, you’ll see interactive whiteboards, computers, smart tablets. Our classroom had tables and chairs and that was it. We just had no money, we had no resources. If we, the teachers, didn’t have the equipment with us in our bag to take into the classroom the lesson didn’t happen.”

The men, she said, routinely experienced “teachers just being dumped in classrooms, not having a clue what they were supposed to be teaching or who they were teaching.”

Laura acknowledged that many teachers in prison are “outstanding” but “just have no support in what they do”. She said she “loved reading the review” and is “really keen to see how the recommendations come into fruition, and how it can really help raise the standards of teaching in prison”.


Marie-Clare O’Brien is a former prisoner who now runs New Leaf CIC, which helps people with criminal records find work. She spoke about the importance of education particularly in terms of employment.

“Work in general in prison is very scarce or very menial. This is quite damaging, getting people that are already disenfranchised into these menial positions of work whilst they’re a captive audience.”

Working with a group of learners who were already “disenfranchised and disengaged”, it was all-the-more important to focus on contexualised and embedded learning, said Marie-Claire, and to be sure to offer adequate incentives to take part in education.

The fifth panellist, Ben, was released from custody earlier this year. WIth the help of a business start-up grant from PET and ongoing support from the Princes’ Trust, he is now setting up his own Heavy Good Vehicles recycling company. As a young man in and out of prison, Ben said he was “lost”.

“I couldn’t find a narrative or a focus for my life. I was incredibly angry; incredibly violent. When given an opportunity to study at a higher level, which I believed I was capable of doing, it genuinely gave me a focus, it calmed me down, it helped me to be able to communicate with people, resolve conflict, all of the good things that come with education.”

Education said Ben, is an “engine of social mobility”, but too many people in prison are being denied the chance to engage with it. “There are so many people within prison with good skills, who are literally just dying to use them, but they don’t have a focus, they’re locked up for 20 hours, 22 hours a day. This isn’t good for mental health, or your physical health. It drives you towards drugs, and drugs drive you towards violence.”

This emphasis on the holistic benefits of education, and its positive effect on wellbeing, were echoed by Dame Sally.

“Education is 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.”

Prisoners' Education Trust's Annual Lecture was kindly hosted by Clifford Chance LLP. A full transcript is available here