Jon Collins: Standing up for prisoners' right to learn

The new Prisoners' Education Trust boss talks of his career and giving inmates a chance to turn their lives around

Kate Parker

A champion of prison education: Prisoners Education Trust's chief executive: Jon Collins

Jon Collins has dedicated his entire career to justice system reform.

Why? At a basic level, he says that is because he is quite “nerdy” and loves getting involved in complex policy issues. But his commitment goes further than that: it’s about the huge chasm between what the justice system could potentially do for people and the reality of what it actually does. Wanting to be part of realising that potential is what has driven Collins in every role he has held. 

“When you look at the justice system, it's engaging with people who, for whatever reason, have found that part of their life has gone off track, or that they've done something they shouldn't have done, and they've broken the law and ended up in the justice system,” he says.

“There’s a real opportunity for people to turn their lives around, to put any criminal behaviour behind them, but too often the system doesn't enable them or support them to do that, and, as a result, it's a wasted opportunity to help people to improve their lives.”

Two weeks ago, Collins became the chief executive of the Prisoners' Education Trust: it’s a role that at its very heart is about enabling prisoners to transform their lives and realise their potential; a role in which he can narrow that chasm between potential and reality.

Tes magazine: How prison education changed in lockdown

More: Calls to give every prisoner access to digital learning

Need to know: Prison education must be reinstated, says charity

Collins was born in Ayrshire on the West Coast of Scotland, and lived there until the age of 7 when his father’s job led to the family relocating to Hampshire. His father was an accountant, and his mother a ballet teacher before she gave up work to be at home with Collins and his two elder sisters.

At the age of 13, Collins was sent miles away from his family to a boarding school in Scotland. He says he “can’t complain” about the decision: he got an excellent education, made friends for life and his parents visited a lot. He says, however, that he wouldn’t send his own children to boarding school.

A champion of prison education

Collins was a hard-working and diligent student – although he admits some of that slipped during his A levels – and he especially loved history, Latin and geography. Throughout his education, he gave little thought to a future career, and chose to study the subject he was most passionate about – history – at Newcastle University without any plans for where it might lead him. 

"I don't think that really changed through university. I left Newcastle without a very clear idea of what I wanted to do, and without a strong vocational pull towards a particular thing. History lends itself towards that, in that you can sort of do anything, but unless you want to be a history teacher or a historian, it doesn't directly move you into anything,” he says.

“I remember going to see a university careers person and them saying, 'You can do anything you want to do with this,' which was sort of both helpful and a bit daunting all at the same time.”

Collins worked a number of jobs: including in a bookshop and in a number of pubs before he went travelling around South-East Asia. The next few years followed a similar pattern: work to save up, and then go and see the world. In San Francisco, his passion for social justice was first sparked when volunteering for a charity that supported people with HIV. 

Passion for social justice

On his return, Collins got an administrative job for social justice charity Nacro. It didn’t take long for him to be completely inspired by its work in the justice sector, and, keen to be part of system reform, he went back to university and studied criminal justice policy at the London School of Economics. 

“[Nacro] was fighting against the system rather than being an integral part of it. And while there are brilliant people who work in the criminal justice system, the system as a whole often feels like it's not set up to help with rehabilitation and to support people to turn their lives around,” he says. 

“It was that frustration: there's so much more that could be done. I was 25 and I thought, 'This is a really interesting area to work in where I could make a difference.' At that age, I was very confident that I could get stuck in and help to fix it. I still think that’s an issue really worth working on. I think the system has improved in some ways, but progress has been slow and there is still a huge amount more to do.” 

Roles at organisations across the sector including the Criminal Justice Alliance, the Restorative Justice Council (RJC) and the Magistrates' Association followed – he says he is particularly proud of campaigning for funding of rape crisis centres while he was at the Fawcett Society, and ensuring restorative justice was available to more victims and offenders while at the RJC. 

However, a challenge across all of his roles has been tackling the public perception of what life in prison is like. 

“There are a lot of misconceptions about what prison is like. In various roles I've been in, I've got to go visit prisons and meet prisoners, and see cells and prison wings. I think there is a real gap between what the public think prison would be like and what an actual prison is like, and what most people's experience of a prison is like,” he says.

“Obviously, that's been even more so in the last year or so during lockdown: people being in their cells 23 hours a day. But even at best, a lot of prison regimes are very limited, and the amount of time people spend in their cell or without anything purposeful to do is much more than I think people realise. As much as possible, it's important to make sure that there is a public understanding of the reality of what the justice system is like.”

The power of prison education

Collins says he sees it as his responsibility to advocate for effective ways of reducing offending and the tools being in place to help people turn their lives around. Education, clearly, is a major part of the puzzle when it comes to rehabilitation, and Collins is clear that the importance of quality prison education shouldn’t be underestimated. 

It’s that belief, he says, that drew him to apply for the role at the Prisoners' Education Trust. 

“It’s important to work for an organisation that you think is doing something really valuable, and I'm really proud to have got the job. The evidence shows – and it's not surprising – that education is central to helping people to get a job on release and reducing reoffending more broadly,” he says. 

“Its role in terms of reducing reoffending is really important, but I also think education, in general and within prison, has a more important underpinning value that goes beyond that in terms of enabling people to learn, to develop, to recognise their potential. It can help with their confidence, and show that society is investing in them and in their development.”

Collins is still very new to the job – and is yet to meet any of his colleagues face-to-face, but he is already committed to ensuring that the education offer is quality and robust, as well as making sure that advice and guidance is accessible to as many prisoners as possible. It’s certainly no mean feat: particularly during a pandemic.

Much has been reported about the impact that Covid has had on prison education, and without a digital infrastructure in place to support remote learning, a lot of education has come to a complete halt or has had to take place via paper workbooks and short telephone conversations. 

“We're still some way off prisons being back to normal and being able to have full classroom-based education for most people. That’s concerning, of course: we've lost a year of people's opportunity to get education while they're in prison,” Collins says.

Prison education that leads to employment

“For some people, a significant proportion of their sentence will be served in lockdown, accessing almost no support of any kind. I think there's always going to need to be a balance between protecting prisoner and prison staff health, and that has to be a priority, but also moving as quickly as possible to reinstate things like education, opportunities for family visits, physical activity is very important as well.”

The Prisoners' Education Trust has already set out six immediate steps that it believes must be taken to facilitate better education in the short term – and Collins says that, long term, it’s crucial the Ministry of Justice steps up and offers a robust strategy on the future of education provision. 

Part of that strategy has to be about ensuring that education is relevant and links to employment opportunities on the outside, he says. 

“We should always be ensuring the education available has real-world relevance, so it enables people to move into employment in the community when they leave prison. That's important,” he says. 

“It’s really important that where people are engaging positively with education – whether that's distance learning that we offer, whether that's education within the prison system – they have a positive experience and experience they feel is relevant, that will engage them in education and turn them into learners. Our vision, as an organisation, is every prisoner a learner, and every prison a place to learn, and, fundamentally, that is what we're trying to achieve.”

It really is a huge mountain to climb and one with many obstacles to overcome, even once the pandemic is behind us: public perception, government funding, the complexities of the justice system to name a few. And although he may only be two weeks into the role, it's easy to see that Collins is more than up for the challenge.

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a FE reporter.

Find me on Twitter @KateeParker

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