A lack of full-time teaching staff in prisons threatens to jeopardise government plans to improve training opportunities for offenders, a union has warned.
A green paper, launched by education secretary Ruth Kelly and skills minister Phil Hope, sets out to reduce re-offending by improving training and education to help offenders into jobs when they leave prison.
Natfhe, the lecturers' union, which represents prison educators in England and Wales, said that unstable employment for teaching staff in jails "would inhibit success" of the strategy, although it supports the idea in principle.
Christiane Ohsan, the union's national official representing teaching staff in jails, said: "The majority of prison educators are employed part-time on insecure contracts. They constantly face pressures from processes which interfere with their efforts to provide a professional service. Speeding up ex-offender employment will require a solution to this."
She said most educators working in the 148 jails in England and Wales will welcome "the recognition which the green paper gives to the importance of their work". She added: "There is a growing understanding that education is the key to reducing re-offending rates. But prison educators require much greater support and stability of employment."
She said that, in a typical prison, at least two thirds of the 30 teaching staff would be on part-time contracts, with pay rates generally lower than in colleges.
"It bugs us as a union that the service relies so heavily on part-time staff," she said. "It is a service that really abuses this category of staff because it will switch people from one subject area to another."
A recent report by the House of Commons education select committee revealed that prisoners who do not take part in education are three times more likely to be reconvicted. Prison educators were described as "unsung heroes" in evidence to the committee, which added in its report: "The specialist skill of teaching in prison is largely unrecognised."
The green paper, Reducing re-offending through skills and employment, was published by the Department for Education and Skills, the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions. Key proposals include a stronger focus on jobs with more skills training, responding to employers' needs. A consultation on the proposals is due to finish towards the end of May.
A contract would be offered to offenders, with incentives for participation, and a "campus" model to ensure continuity of education from prisons into the community.
The green paper estimated that re-offending costs the criminal justice system an average of pound;65,000 up to the point of re-imprisonment, and Pounds 37,500 for each year in prison.
The Government is also soon to publish its five-year strategy for reducing re-offending and protecting the public.
The Learning and Skills Council has been working to make prison education work in a way that gives inmates similar access to re-training as adults in the wider community.
Most prison education contracts are held by colleges. Ms Kelly says the quality of prison education still needs to be improved, although the number of prisoners gaining basic numeracy and literacy qualifications has more than doubled since 2001.