Education and training offered in prisons should be part of a country's mainstream education system and lead to the same qualifications, according to a major European report.
Although all European Union member states recognise the right of prisoners to access education, surveys reveal that participation is at less than 25 per cent in most countries. What's more, it is estimated that only between 3 and 5 per cent of European prisoners are qualified enough to enter higher education.
Now a report from the European Commission has called for prisons to offer a broad curriculum that goes beyond basic skills and vocational training to include a wide range of subjects.
Prisoners, it says, should be able to gain formal qualifications that are recognised by employers and education and training providers on the "outside". It also recommends that a system be put in place so that inmates can more easily continue with their studies after serving their sentence.
The report highlights the UK's Virtual Campus project, a web-based training service for prisoners that allows them ongoing access to coursework and documents such as CVs rather than starting from scratch when they are transferred or released.
Nina Champion, head of policy at UK charity Prisoners' Education Trust, said that access to a wider range of learning opportunities was "vital" if prisoners were to be successfully rehabilitated into society.
"Learning in prison must serve a broader purpose, not just a narrow focus on employability," she said. "Many prisoners who achieve basic skills want to progress further but often meet a brick wall. They say they want recognised qualifications rather than what they call `jail qualifications', and employers are looking for higher level qualifications as well."
But Ms Champion warned that the teaching must be tailored to each prisoner. "Many of those in prison have had a bad experience of formal education so repeating what happens in mainstream isn't necessarily going to work with everyone," she said.
The report also calls for better training and support for prison teachers, who it says often work in "challenging" environments with a diverse cohort of learners.
Although prison teachers are required to have a relevant teaching or training qualification in most EU countries, in only a very small number are they required to have any specific qualifications relating to teaching in prisons.
The report says that prison work "brings with it an additional set of challenges, requiring psychological, social, didactical and pedagogical preparation and ongoing support". As a result, ongoing training is necessary to help prison teachers keep pace with changes in the mainstream education system as well as the changing requirements of employers.
Another issue is the isolation that many prison teachers feel, in part because of a lack of understanding among teachers working in mainstream schools or colleges about their role and the challenges they face. There should be more opportunities for the two groups to meet and share practice, the report says.
It also calls for the benefits of prison education to be promoted more widely among the public to dispel negative perceptions of it as a "benefit" or "luxury" rather than an important part of the rehabilitation process.
Ms Champion agreed, saying: "It benefits everyone because there are strong links between prison education and reducing reoffending."
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