Opinion

The failures of education in prison are criminal

If the prison system provided decent education then rehabilitation outcomes would be so much better, says Amanda Spielman, the Chief Inspector at Ofsted

Amanda Spielman

Image: Steven May / Alamy Live News

Prison education is in a dire state. Ofsted inspects England’s nurseries, schools, colleges and apprenticeships too, but for years prison education has been the worst performing area we look at. 

Perhaps that’s not surprising. Some might say that educating prisoners shouldn’t be a priority. But if we’re serious about rehabilitation as a society, education in prison should get much more attention than it currently does. If prisoners leave at the end of their sentence without any of the basic skills needed to navigate their way through life, then they are much less likely to find work and more likely to reoffend. On average, almost a quarter of the people sent to prison are reoffenders. 

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The cost of sending the same people back to prison time and again – as well as the social impact of their crimes – are huge. Rehabilitation has to start with education. I have been the Ofsted Chief Inspector for over six years now, and during this time little has given me more cause for concern than the poor state of prison education. I’ve visited prisons and young offender institutions and found teachers sitting in empty classrooms. In others, prisoners were in their cells for 23 hours a day with no time allocated to educational activities.

Prisoners typically arrive in prison having had a poor experience at school, and they often have additional learning needs or difficulties that have not been addressed. In fact, well over half of the adult prison population have the literacy age of an 11-year-old or younger. Many can’t read or write at all. We want prisoners to be serving their sentences more productively and purposefully so that they can be successfully integrated back into society at the end of their sentence. And we know that education greatly increases a prisoner’s life chances, with the prospect of more job opportunities upon their release.

Each concept or subject learned in prison acts as a stepping stone, helping prisoners to build the basic foundations for lifelong knowledge and skills. This includes learning to complete simple daily tasks, such as writing an email or adding up the cost of groceries.  

Unfortunately, good quality, well-run educational activities and programmes are alarmingly rare within the prison system. We’ve found that not enough is being done to understand and meet the full range of prisoners’ educational needs. Screening plays a crucial part in identifying prisoners with learning difficulties, or disabilities, who require additional support, but far too many are slipping through the cracks due to poor educational assessments. Without the right attention to these individual needs, little or no progress can be made. 

It’s true that the pandemic had a significant impact on prison education. Prisoners’ movement was severely limited, making trips to the classroom impossible. But the overall quality of provision was already poor, and it has certainly not bounced back since the pandemic. Several factors have contributed to this decline over time, such as staff shortages and a lack of resources. Inspecting alongside His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP), we see many examples of poor practice, including insufficient teacher training and delays in reinstating full learning schemes after pandemic restrictions. 

In prisons where there is a clear focus on rehabilitation, the current system still doesn’t incentivise educational activities to the same extent as manual work. If prisoners are paid a small wage for cleaning, but not for classes, it’s little wonder that they don’t prioritise improving their English, digital or maths skills. Teaching reading and writing is vital in prisons, but it’s not enough. There should be a strong and varied curriculum offered across all education, skills and work activities, with quality teaching that can be applied both inside and outside of prison.

Education programmes should promote positive behaviour and attitudes, and encourage personal development. Activities should be varied and engaging. Subjects like art and cooking should be included, which, along with developing knowledge and skills, have been seen to improve the mental health of prisoners.

The lack of access to a high-quality education entrenches the challenges prisoners already face when trying to enter the job market after prison. I fear that if this bleak picture does not change soon, too many prisoners will continue to re-offend on their release, because they do not have the essential skills that can help them resettle and find meaningful work. We do what we can to be a voice for change. But we need that change to happen urgently. 

Amanda Spielman is His Majesty’s Chief Inspector at Ofsted 

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This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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