‘Prison education is the catalyst for changing lives’

21st March 2017 at 13:12
Reforms to prison education should be welcomed, but for the new measures to succeed the current under-resourcing of prisons must be addressed

The government’s recently published Prisons and Courts Bill will give governors greater powers over education, employment and health budgets. As principal of an institution that provides offender learning for several prisons across the South West I believe that allowing governors greater flexibility in terms of the curriculum they are able to offer can only be a good thing. However, for the new measures to succeed, the current under-resourcing of prisons needs to be addressed. At present lack of funds means education is frequently disrupted in prison; prisoners who participate in education need to be released from the cells to do so and if that cannot occur because of a shortage of prisoner officers and other issues, then delivering the full complement of learning becomes more difficult.

Obviously the priority is the safety of the prisoners and the prison itself, and unfortunately presently there is little individual governors can do; meanwhile, some prisoners may find their education disrupted if they find themselves moved from one institution to another – which can mean that tracking the individual in terms of maintaining continuity of provision is a challenge. Others may be moved to another part of the country entirely and perhaps to an area which might be less enlightened when it comes to delivery of education.

Despite all these restraints over the past six years I have witnessed real progress especially where we have concentrated on identifying companies who will readily engage in giving jobs or traineeships to prisoners when they have completed their sentences. Though sadly, at the moment, there are certain qualifications under the current regime that we are unable to get funding for and yet which can be crucial for people who are entering the world of work. For instance, costs do not permit the provision of working towards a Construction Skills Certification Scheme – a card needed to work at environments such as building sites. Should prison governors be able to establish a really robust partnership with the educational provider to create that kind of future for the prisoner, then it could be a winning combination.

Prison education leads to ‘amazing transformations’

I have spent time in every one of the prisons we look after and witnessed amazing transformations; I have seen prisoners who were totally disengaged and who started off with a relatively low level of skills training, and seen them advance to a level where some are now doing degree study. I have seen others achieve qualifications, engage with an employer and gain progression in that environment and seen others develop a skill and get training in setting up their own business.

When you meet a prisoner, often they have never been exposed to education, or perhaps had a very bad experience of it. This is an issue for both the prison itself, and for the teaching and learning provider, to help reintroduce them to learning and show them all the advantages that can bring. But they still need that support mechanism when they fulfil their sentence. There is sadly a minority who feel that support for them once they leave prison is not great and who reoffend to return to an environment that they see as safe and secure.

People who think they have seen life should spend just a day in one of our prisons and they will not leave – whatever their preconceived ideas they have – without thinking how well off they are in what they have experienced in life compared to these people.

From my perspective, the government has to realise that teaching and learning is the way forward – it’s the catalyst to changing those lives.

Dr Paul Phillips is principal of Weston College

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