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Prisoners' learning at risk

Home Office cuts in prison spending have put staff training and inmate education in jeopardy.

In the week the Learmont report recommended a multi-million pound package of security and other improvements in British jails, details have emerged of proposals to slash teaching time at London's Pentonville Prison by a fifth.

Home Secretary Michael Howard, already under pressure from some quarters to resign over his handling of recent prison security lapses, is now to face questions in the Commons over the state of prison education.

Shadow home office minister George Howarth is to quiz the Secretary of State on Monday to establish how many teaching hours are currently provided in each jail and where cuts are proposed.

The Learmont report, recommending measures costed at almost Pounds 290 million, came only days after Mr Howard pledged at the Conservative Party conference to bring in tougher legislation directed at repeat offenders which would increase the prison population by 15,000.

In both cases, prison budgets will inevitably be stretched, at a time when the service is facing enforced cut-backs of 8.6 per cent over three years. The Prison Reform Trust, whose damning review of prison education published two years ago found contracting out of the service had led to chaos, is poised to bring out a follow-up report next month.

The paper says there has been a recovery from the "severe mauling" caused by the contracting process, but finds inmate education still under threat as budgets are squeezed.

Reform Trust director Stephen Shaw said: "Like all aspects of prison regimes, the over-emphasis upon security has meant that regimes have begun to suffer and education has not been able to avoid being damaged."

A Home Office source admitted education was among the most vulnerable prison services when cuts were demanded.

The source said: "The bulk of prison expenditure is on staff, but governors daren't touch them unless they are very brave. Teaching staff, though, are something you buy in, so when governors are looking for 2.9 per cent cuts each year that is a less sensitive area to go for."

Individual governors have responsibility for deciding what proportion of their budget they will use to buy in teaching. Under a new minimal core jail curriculum about to be launched by the prison service, all will be required to provide education in literacy, numeracy, life skills and arts and crafts.

The Prison Service said the governor of Pentonville, Kevin Brewer, had had to "change provision of education for this financial year", but no decisions for the following year had yet been taken.

The prospect of possible widespread cutbacks has caused alarm among those highlighting the importance of education in rehabilitation of prisoners.

The National Organisation for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, NACRO, warned of the risks of a change in regime.

Prisons contract manager Jackie Worrall said: "While there is obviously substantial political support for the spread of an austere regime, we are talking about taking away something which is constructive and which reduces the likelihood of reoffending after release."

George Howarth said education must play "a central part in the process of rehabilitation".

Kingsway College, London, which holds the contract for education at Pentonville and Holloway prisons, is currently negotiating with Pentonville to try to maintain the present figure of almost 11,000 teaching hours per year.

Alastair Brown, Kingsway's centre director for the two jails said tutors felt there was a need to teach more hours, not fewer.

He warned that if cuts hit education nationally, prisons would find it very difficult to offer the new core curriculum.

He said: "Education is a lifeline for a lot of prisoners. I think overall its rehabilitative aspects are getting forgotten."

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