Prison education today

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New restrictions

On 20 December 2021, prisons introduced new restrictions in response to the Omicron variant.

Prisoners engaged in ‘essential’ work – for instance in the kitchens or laundry – can still attend these, but many other workshops and work places in prisons are closed. Education classes can run, but this will usually be for smaller groups.

Education providers are being asked to provide in-cell materials and can sometimes make phone calls to people in their cells or visit prison wings to support learners, but arrangements vary massively between prisons.

Education in prison has been through a tough time.

While education is largely back on track in the community, with schools and colleges open, this is not the same in prisons. Learners continue to be massively disadvantaged by the repercussions of the pandemic and consequent lockdown.

The start of lockdown

From the end of March 2020, when Covid struck, education staff were not able to go into prisons and worked at home to write in-cell education packs that could be distributed to learners.

From July 2020, education staff could return to prisons, but not to provide classroom activities. Some teachers were able to visit wings and carry out one-to-one or small group work; in other prisons, teachers had conversations with their learners through the cell doors.

In-cell learning

So for over a year, education in prisons has largely been provided through in-cell education packs – paper based materials – for learners to complete individually.

Although teachers worked hard to prepare these and to provide feedback, there are problems with this way of providing education to learners in prison.

At least a third of people in prison have a learning difficulty or disability. Many people in prison haven’t completed school, and don’t have qualifications or some basic functional skills. This means that in-cell packs are not suitable for many learners – particularly those with additional needs.

Some learners need to work with someone who will support their self-esteem and encourage them to learn. Most need interactive support from tutors to be able to make progress. And access to the packs varied in prisons, meaning that distribution was not always systematic.

Overall, provision of in-cell packs was inconsistent and inadequate. And for many learners – even the most committed and enthusiastic – the lack of tutor support and contact was extremely demotivating.

The road to recovery

Progress towards reinstating face-to-face learning has been very slow. From August 2020 some prisons had the capacity to provide socially distanced classes and were trying to implement this, but this needed central sign off, which was a very slow process.

Around two thirds of prisons now have in-cell telephones, meaning tutors can call learners directly to discuss their lessons and progress.

The Prison Service has a five-stage recovery ‘roadmap’. As of September 2021, only a handful of prisons were at level 1, the lowest level of restrictions.

Classes in prisons had started again, but they were being managed with restrictions and limited numbers. As there were nowhere near enough activity places in prison even pre-Covid, this means that even fewer people could access meaningful activity.

Lock-up periods remained long, and many prisons still could not achieve a full day out of cell.

Ultimately, for nearly two years, learners in prison have lacked meaningful opportunities to gain education and skills that would reduce their likelihood of offending and provide them with better outcomes.

Prisons are right to be cautious, but in some places, progress is too slow and much more needs to be done to support learners to access the education they need

If you have any queries or comments about education in prison, please contact our policy team.

Updated: January 2022


In July 2021, PET’s Head of Policy Francesca Cooney wrote three blogs about how prisons are recovering from the pandemic and what this means for prison learners. Read them here:

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