EDUCATION in prisons is in danger of disappearing unless governors are forced to allocate a specific part of their budgets to teaching and training, the Government was warned this week.
The Association of Prison Education Contractors wants the Home Office to ringfence spending on inmates' education in the face of mounting concern over recent cutbacks to overall prison funding.
It fears that unless the Government takes action, prison education could rapidly deteriorate or disappear altogether from some of the nation's jails.
The association, which represents the majority of colleges providing education in prisons, would like to see the Home Office move towards fixing both the hours and quality of teaching and training in British jails.
"In the worst extreme, education could go completely," said Tim Hughes, secretary of APEC. "Or it could simply come and go.
"Education is the easiest thing to chop - if something terrible happens, such as a fire on the roof of a jail, money can be taken away from education to repair the roof at a month's notice, with disastrous effect."
Hundreds of teaching hours have already been slashed from prison timetables by governors who, for the past five years, have had direct control of their prison's budgets.
All prisons are required to provide a core curriculum, which includes literacy, numeracy, life and social skills and information technology. But there is no legal requirement for governors to provide education except to those inmates under 16.
APEC wants to see a return to a situation similar to pre-1993 when the Home Office fixed a budget for each prison.
"While governors control the budgets, no central policy on the education and training of prisoners can be enforced," said Jeff Butcher, APEC chairman.
"Secondly, while the allocation of funds remains at the whim of governors, there can be no stability in any education programme. A prison governor may order an increase in the education programme this month.
In a few months' time, he may move on and a temporary governor can decide to give three weeks' notice that education must be cut, possibly leading to staff redundancy."
In the past three years, the prison population has risen by nearly 14,000 to 65,600, while spending on inmates' education has been cut by nearly pound;1 million to pound;36.25m.
A Prison Service spokesman said: "Governors are required to provide a core curriculum. Ringfencing would inhibit them from managing their budgets flexibly. There have been reductions in expenditure and education hours, but this reflects the financial and population pressures on prisons. It also reflects an increased efficiency in prison education."
"We recently received an additional pound;112m to accommodate the additional numbers coming into prisons."
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