Opinion: 'Prison education can tackle reoffending from the inside out'

Kirstie Donnelly

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The managing director of City & Guilds UK says it is time we understood the benefits of offender learning

“Refreshingly different,” was how one critic described his experience. “I am struggling to think of a Bakewell tart I've liked more,” commented another. “Food very good and service exceptional,” reported a satisfied customer on TripAdvisor.

When it comes to fine dining, there are more likely locations than inside one of Britain’s prisons. But The Clink – a chain of restaurants where prisoners train for a City & Guilds qualification in food preparation – gets almost unanimous good reviews, and not just for the menu.

Crucially, it gives offenders the chance to learn a valuable skill, paving the way for them to productively re-enter society. To me, it’s an example of what training and education should be about; something that benefits tomorrow, not just today. Unfortunately, while there are some wonderful prison tutors and organisations, prison education is not seen through this prism often enough.

In a speech before Parliament went off for summer, the new justice secretary Michael Gove, formerly education secretary, gave us some food for thought for the holidays. He referred to a shocking figure: a fifth of prisoners leave their cells for just couple of hours each day. He called for radical improvements in the learning opportunities on offer for prisoners, saying he was attracted to the idea of earned release for offenders “who show by their changed attitude that they wish to contribute to society and who work hard to acquire proper qualifications”.

The practicability of this clearly requires further consideration. But Gove was right to raise this issue. Prison education is about far more than distracting people when they are behind bars; it’s not just something that’s done for the sake of it. 

Instead, it’s about ensuring that everyone can be a productive member of society. For a while now, economists have been warning of the UK’s weak productivity levels. But why do we hear so little about the cost of marginalising a huge mass of working age people from the labour market?

Why don’t we talk more about the cost of not providing those people with useful skills for the workplace? We say we want to help rehabilitate these individuals, yet fail to offer a proper foundation so they can get on after they get out.

And what about the economic cost? According to the National Audit Office we could put on another Olympic Games every summer for the same price as tackling the cost of reoffending. Our economy might be on the up, but it still makes no sense to throw money down the drain. Yet if we don’t prioritise prison education, that’s effectively what we are doing.

At City & Guilds, everything we do is about helping people into work – and that includes those behind bars. So I was pleased to hear Gove’s commitment to strengthening the learning options on offer in prison and I look forward to hearing the details of his plans in the autumn.

But, as with all reform, it needs to be done with a long-term view, not as a quick fix. We’ve got to make sure prisoners are getting the chance to train for jobs that actually exist outside. And offering enhanced access to qualifications in prisons will only work if the infrastructure is there, from funding for prison tutors to improved IT systems across the board. Focus must be on ensuring prisons have access to the right staff, technology and resources to deliver the skilled people employers want. 

As a country, it’s time we committed to understanding and improving offender learning to equip prisoners with skills that come with real, lifelong benefits. Boosting prison education isn’t going to eliminate crime, but there is no question it can reduce reoffending and giving people hope. We have to give ex-offenders the opportunity to make a life for themselves on the outside, and turn their lives around for good. 

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Kirstie Donnelly

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