'Determined leadership is needed in prison education'

Giving governors power and the right support will help to put education at the heart of the prison system, says a member of the Coates Review

Olivia Dorricott

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"Determined leadership"that’s how the approach of one prison governor was praised, as she so ably grappled with the multiple challenges of an isolated, ageing establishment. That’s also precisely the kind of leadership that the just-published Coates Review recommends should be more widespread, in order that sustainable reform can really take place, and the rehabilitation of so many more prisoners can be achieved. In the review, we wanted to see the expansion – and sharing – of a refreshed, revitalised leadership, hand in hand with governors’ new accountability for education.

Security considerations, changing populations, staffing pressures and, often, a scarcity of resources or IT – these are all challenges faced by a governor and her/his team in a prison. Then, in education, how to get prisoners safely to a classroom, what to teach, how to persuade employers to work with the prison and, critically, how to inspire officers to play their part too, encouraging more upskilling. 

As in any sector and setting, solutions to these challenges exist. An effective and determined prison leader inspires all their staff to bring about change and, during the visits I did for the review, I saw this often. We also heard first-hand from governors at several private discussions about what is already possible with some grit and determination, and often also a little bit of under-compliance

'Prisoners will see the benefits'

Let me be clear, I’ve yet to meet a governor who is not ambitious and caring in equal measure for their prisoners but the challenges faced can appear unsurmountable and the system prohibitive. The review recommends that, along with putting autonomy and freedom in their hands, we offer leaders more training and support, professional networks and contacts, tools and knowledge to ensure they can confidently commission excellence. I firmly believe this will help education really become the heart of all regimes. Not only are no two prisons the same, but teaching in a prison is unique – and the settings are like no other, with current prison design too focused on security, not learning.

We have set out what could change for a prisoner if our recommendations are implemented: they can expect to be taught in a high-quality setting, encouraged and drawn in to learning with journeys and opportunities clearly mapped out. Prisoners will see the benefits of education being at the heart of their sentence: they can look forward to new chances and jobs, both on ROTL (release on temporary licence) or on release.

Leaders need – and should demand – time and space to shape their regime and use the new autonomy wisely: I believe governors will readily put education at the heart of that regime and inspire their staff, in particular aspirational managers and officers, to do the same. The Education and Training Foundation will offer leaders – and managers, teachers, officers and instructors – even more professional support in order that a true culture of excellent education prevails, and meaningful rehabilitation lies ahead.

Olivia Dorricott is director of leadership at the Education and Training Foundation and a member of the Coates Review

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Olivia Dorricott

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