Warehouses or greenhouses? Unlocking potential in England and Scotland

31 May 2016

By Nina Champion

An aspirational vision

"Unlocking potential and transforming lives" is the Scottish Prison Service"s (SPS) strapline, a phrase that is clearly visible as you walk into any prison north of the border. Similarly the title of the report by Dame Sally Coates into prison education in England is Unlocking Potential, the introduction of which asserts that improved prison education "can transform prisoners' lives". This aspiration is central to both the new Scottish and English vision of the purpose of prisons and why education, in particular, has a central role in both.

Nurturing talent and potential

In a recent blog about prisons, Richard Branson quoted a mentor at the Clink Charity, who posed the question of whether we want prisons to be “warehouses for the incorrigible, or greenhouses for the reformed”. I like this analogy as it suggests that if we nurture talent and potential in prisons, what grows and blossoms can be enjoyed by everyone.

Anyone who has spent time with prisoners has examples of individuals who, given the right environment and opportunities, have "unlocked" their potential. Likewise, they have met many others whose talents have not had the opportunity to be discovered or thrive.

With the publication of two important new strategies, we are seeing a movement beyond a narrow definition of education, to incorporate wider personal and social development. We are expanding from an approach focusing simply on reducing reoffending or producing employment, to one which encompasses wider aspirations. For example the Scottish strategy intends prisoners to become "successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors". Coates meanwhile highlights the role education can play in "building social capital and improving the wellbeing of prisoners".

Student reading in cell- Rebecca Radmore Photography

Asset and strength-based model

Colin McConnell, Chief Executive of the SPS, said Scotland"s new strategy means those in its care “should have the opportunity to engage in creative and flexible learning that inspires changes and builds individual strength”. In line with the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence in schools and colleges, prison education should be "person centred and asset based". Similarly, Coates wants prison education to help prisoners "become assets to their communities" and "must do more than simply address deficits in basic skills". At the launch of the Scottish strategy Colin McConnell declared that "the term offender is a stigma and a label and in 21st century Scotland we should seek to eradicate [it] and avoid its use". It is interesting to note that the word offender only appears four times in the 68-page Coates Review with the term "prisoner" or "learner" being favoured. These are important and significant shifts in rhetoric and language, which go to the heart of the most fundamental questions: What is prison for? What is prison education for? How should education be delivered in order to achieve the outcomes we want? In terms of the last question, there are three key themes arising out of the two new strategies; engagement, a whole prison approach and measuring and evidencing success.


Both strategies tackle the million-dollar question of how to engage prisoners in education. The Scottish strategy says prisoners "can often be disaffected and lacking motivation to engage". The Coates report highlights that additional support is required to engage "the more reluctant learners" and those who "have had negative experiences of traditional classroom subjects, or struggle with self esteem and communication".

Scotland is prescriptive how all of its prisons should promote participation. It advocates a project-based approach - hinging learning activities around contemporary issues - with the use of technologies and the arts. All Scottish prisons will take this approach, with the same education provider, but individual prisons will have their own "learning plan" appropriate to the needs of that population.

This approach is possible in Scotland, where there are only 15 prisons in total. In England and Wales, where there are over 100 prisons, Dame Sally Coates has suggested a move from a limited number of education providers, to opening up the market for individual Governors to decide how education is delivered in their establishment. She says: "It is not my intention to be prescriptive or tell Governors what type of education best meets the needs of their learners", but she does set out some ideas about how to engage prisoners. Interestingly those are similar to those set out in the Scottish strategy: creative arts, personal and social development courses, sports-based learning, embedded learning, blended learning, peer mentoring and informal learning.

A whole-prison approach

Sally Coates is very clear that to make her vision a reality, education must be at the "heart of the prison regime" and this requires a "whole-organisation approach". In Scotland too, the strategy identifies aspects of the prison regime that drive silo working and hinder collaboration. These include pay, incentives and timetabling of the core day. 

Both Coates and McConnell detail ways in which the whole prison regime and workforce need to be given flexibility to incentivise and prioritise learning across the prison and better meet the needs of individual learners.

Measuring and proving success

Both strategies grapple with the issue of success and how it is measured. Coates says: "It was not clear to me from my visits how managers locally assess the success of the education arrangements". She recounts that many Governors appeared to view success as "facilitating learner attendance at classes" and OLASS providers frequently viewed success in terms of "drawing down funding available to cover their costs".

Dame Sally reflects that Ofsted"s assessment of prison education is that too much is poor or needs improvement. She sets out the need for a core set of performance measures that include a "suite of outcome measures" including educational progression against a baseline assessment and changes to the inspection regime. She also calls for operational performance measures that are more meaningful than the current payment arrangements under OLASS that can "incentive the wrong commissioning and delivery behaviours".

The SPS raise similar concerns; proposing that the "concentration on annual increases in individual certificates does not provide a full picture of improved outcomes or the utility of those qualifications as a basis for further learning". They propose a more rounded approach to gathering and analysing evidence that "demonstrates learner progress and the wider benefits of engagement in learning". Neither strategy establishes what this framework will look like, but the recognition that a more nuanced approach is required is a positive starting point.


Both strategies are aspirational in their visions but both come at a time of significant strain in the prison system with staffing shortages, violence, drugs, self harm and suicides on the rise. This makes achieving a human and safe environment a difficult enough task for governors, let alone promoting a culture that supports education and rehabilitation.

However we must continue to keep up the momentum that is building on both sides of the border, and urge the Government to break down the barriers to their implementation so that we really can unlock potential. The thistle of Scotland is a symbol of resilience and the rose of England is a symbol of hope. We are going to need both of these characteristics to ensure that the talent hidden behind prison walls blossoms for the benefit of all.