"I want education closer to the heart of prisons": An interview with the MoJ's Deputy Director of Education

24 Nov 2018


Linda Kennedy 3

As Deputy Director of Education at the Ministry of Justice, Linda Kennedy is responsible for some of the most significant changes to come to prison learning in decades. In an interview with PET, she talks about lessons from the school sector; why the government really is committed to digital prisons; and what distance learning course she’d choose to study given the option.

What most drew you to this role initially?

I’ve always been passionate about education and social mobility: I spent most of my career working in the Department for Education (and its predecessors) and was always drawn to roles where there was a focus on improving the life chances of the most disadvantaged - for example, working on the Sure Start Programme and school improvement programmes. In delivering prison learning and skills, we’re dealing with some of the most disadvantaged, disengaged and hence challenging learners in the further education system. I want to make a difference: I know I can here.

How has your own background influenced the career you’ve pursued?

I was on free school meals and lived in a council house as a child and was the first in my family to go to university. I know getting a good education was one of the things that made a difference to me – and that would explain my passion for and interest in education. I also play an active role as a social mobility champion in MoJ and more widely across the civil service.

“The mainstream education system has shown us the benefits of going digital and so I’d like that to be the next step for prisons.”

How has working in mainstream education shaped your work in the CJS – is there anything you’ve seen working in schools and colleges that we should migrate to prisons?

We’ve seen empowerment and accountability for mainstream educational leaders - prison governor empowerment and accountability are the key things I was brought here to take forward. I’m pretty confident that, with the excellent team I’ve been able to draw together around me (including colleagues with commercial, financial, legal and programme management expertise), I’m well on the way to achieving that.

The other thing is the digital agenda, where the mainstream education system – schools, further education, higher education – has grasped the possibilities with both hands. I realise prisons are a bit different – and there are security issues of course - but the mainstream education system has shown us the benefits of going digital and so I’d like that to be the next step.

How invested do you think the government is in bringing digital technology into prisons?

I believe those at the helm of MoJ are very open to the idea of bringing prison education into the 21st century. My team is working effectively with a range of partners and stakeholders across MoJ, HMPPS and wider to drive that forward. I understand why people might be nervous about it: my colleagues and I just need to set things up in such a way that Ministers can press a ‘go’ button in the confident expectation that we aren’t leaving any risky issues open to abuse, whilst ensuring that they have a chance of securing the huge benefits e-learning and digital technology can bring.

Has anything surprised you about what you've seen or learnt so far in this role?

As you might expect, I’d read Dame Sally Coates’ report and the White Paper before I started my role, so the direction was set and I knew what needed to be done – at least at a high level. One thing that was a big surprise was the lack of data compared with the schools system.

November’s e-news is focusing on the experience of women in the CJS: do you think there is anything specific to your gender that has affected the path you have chosen, or the work you have been offered?

Most of my career has been outside the CJS, but inside the civil service. The proportion of women has increased or remained flat at all civil service grades since 2010. Yet the underlying pattern – the higher up you go, the lower the proportion of women – remains, although it is on the increase. So I am proud to be a senior woman in the civil service.

“I hope the reforms will have moved education closer to the heart of the prison, with governors really grabbing hold of their new powers over the education budget.”

PET's Big Give campaign this winter is raising money for women studying in prison: should prison education policy and provision change when it is for women? How?

No. What is important is that governors and their teams commission provision that is tailored to the needs of individuals. We should not make generalised assumptions about what women or men want to learn about.

What is the most important thing you hope to achieve during your time overseeing the prison education reforms?

Ultimately? I hope that the reforms will lead to a reduction in reoffending. But more immediately, in line with Dame Sally’s thinking, I hope the reforms will have moved education closer to the heart of the prison, with governors really grabbing hold of their new powers over the education budget and tailoring the curriculum to really make a difference.

How can governors get the most out of the new contracts? Are you worried that anything might not work?

There are always risks when you try something new. But I believe that governors want to make the new contracts work and are really looking forward to bringing in the provision they want. The influx of new prison officers should be a big help in making sure prisoners can get to their classes.

Is real progress to prison education possible without an increase of the budget? Would you like to see an increase?

There has never been an education system in the world – and there never will be – that has enough money. I’m realistic enough to understand that, and – whilst fighting hard to make the case for more resource at every opportunity – am determined to make the best of what resources we have. There continues to be waste in the system. I can’t necessarily change that from where I sit, but I can ensure that those best able to cut out that waste – prison governors – are best placed to do so.

If you could do any PET-funded distance learning courses what would you do and why?

So much on offer! I think I’d have to go with a language – perhaps Spanish or Italian. I learned some Spanish at school, but didn’t get very far as they had a teacher retention problem! I’ve always wanted to learn Italian as my great-grandparents were from Italy (but sadly the language was not passed down).