THE past decade has been a rollercoaster ride for the education service in prisons. In 1993, local education authorities were stripped of responsibility, and providers such as further education colleges were invited to bid for the service prison by prison.
Huge job losses among teachers followed, conditions of service deteriorated and part-time teaching posts mushroomed at the expense of full-time jobs. Morale in the service plummeted.
Three years of Government-inspired efficiency savings, ever rising prisoner numbers (currently 64,261) and a renewed drive to enhance prison security in the wake of some spectacular prisoner escapes made a difficult situation worse.
The extreme circumstances under which prison educators work was graphically illustrated recently when a teacher required counselling for stress after being held at knifepoint by armed robber Charles Bronson at Hull prison.
Nevertheless, if savings were to be made, governors invariably found education to be the easiest service to cut. More recently, prison education has re-focused its efforts to reduce illiteracy and innumeracy and to bolster key skills.
A second tendering round resulted in a new set of contractors, largely FE colleges, taking over in the 135 penal establishments in England and Wales for the next five years. Fewer contractors are now responsible for a greater number of prisons.
The leading colleges in the field now include City College, Manchester (20 prisons and one secure training centre), Amersham and Wycombe College (13 prisons, including all in London) and Norwich City College (eight prisons).
Although the new contractors only took over the service in January, there are signs that the transfer has gone much more smoothly than the first round of contracting out five years ago.
One reason is that during the recent bout of tendering, the new contractors were obliged to take on the teaching staff of the previous supplier and respect the terms and conditions of service.
Despite the efficiency savings and rising numbers of offenders, Penny Robson, the prison service's chief education officer, is very positive about the future. Although she agrees that education services were cut back inappropriately in some prisons, she says that student numbers, hours and accreditations are now all rising.
The decision to concentrate on improving numeracy, literacy and basic skills came in the wake of a realisation that 60 per cent of prisoners were at or below level one for literacy with 70 per cent at the same level for numeracy.
The Basic Skills Agency contends that the literacy and numeracy of 60 per cent of prisoners is so poor that it disqualifies them from 96 per cent of jobs.
"If you have poor basic skills and you are an ex-offender, you do not have a lot of chance really," Ms Robson said. "Education should be much more targeted towards what prisoners need rather than at what some prisoners want.
"We now have an education strategy which ties into the national training and education targets. There has been a fine-tuning and re-profiling of provision. We do not want to have people in basic skills classes all the time. We want to integrate basic skills in the workplace and are encouraging governors to do the same in art and PE.
"Prisons are becoming learning societies rather than penal institutions, with an education department somewhere within their walls," she says.
Governors used to think education was a very expensive way of occupying the time of a few rather privileged prisoners. That is changing fast as they see that education can help employability and reduce re-offending.
The service was being givenpound;10 million from the Government to help fund basic and key skills work. Contractors received pound;39m to provide vocational training such as bricklaying, hairdressing and engineering.
While this concentration on tackling basic skill needs seems to have been welcomed by most prison governors, it also has critics.
Dr David Wilson, director of the MA in Criminal Justice, Policy and Practice at the University of Central England and a former prison governor, says it narrows the curriculum and ignores the more advanced educational needs of those prisoners serving long sentences - for example, art or creative writing, or higher or degree-level studies.
Nick Flynn, deputy director of the Prison Reform Trust, says that education does play an essential role in the rehabilitation of prisoners but that its continued existence in some prisons is precarious.
"Education has never really been integrated into prison regimes," he says. "There has been hostility expressed by uniformed officers to education. They ask why prisoners, who have broken the law should get educational opportunities, when people outside who have not broken the law do not."
The link between criminality and educational failure is well established - for example, 45 per cent of prisoners leave school before the age of 16 and 70 per cent of teenage offenders are regular truants or have been excluded from school. However, the rehabilitative role of prison education has yet to be properly researched.