Prisons minister: 'Adult' GCSE not off the table

The proposal is not part of the government's education and employment strategy for prisons, published yesterday

Julia Belgutay

modular GCSE adult education prison reform

The adult GCSE proposed in the Coates Review of prison education is not “off the table”, the prisons minister has said.

Rory Stewart told Tes that, while the proposal for the adult, modular GCSE was absent from the government’s new education and employment strategy for prisons, published yesterday, it is “not off the table” as far as the Ministry of Justice is concerned. “We are looking at that. These are things we are considering and are working on,” he said.

The strategy follows most of the recommendations of Unlocking Potential: a review of education in prison, commissioned by the MoJ and written by Dame Sally Coates, a director of Academies United Learning. That report was published two years ago. One of Coates’ most controversial recommendations was the creation of a modular “adult” GCSE to allow a more flexible approach to learning for prisoners.

Low attainment 

This was strongly opposed by school standards minister Nick Gibb, Coates told Tes back in 2016. She said the minister had signalled that he would not approve such a qualification.

According to the MoJ, only 17 per cent of offenders have found a job one year after their release from prison. This perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise: more than half of the people who enter prison have English and maths skills no better than the standard expected of an 11-year-old. For many, the situation does not improve much during their incarceration: in 2016-17, Ofsted rated 44 per cent of prisons as “requiring improvement” or as “inadequate” for their education provision.

In the new strategy, the MoJ says that “there are too many low-level qualifications being delivered that reap little to no reward for ex-offenders when trying to secure a job”. “For those willing to engage, the system must deliver,” it adda. “Our vision is that when an offender enters prison, they should be put immediately on the path to employment on release.”

Mr Stewart, who was appointed prisons minister in January, taught drama in an Oxford prison some 20 years ago. “That was a very formative experience,” he said.

“The really big hole in the system that we have identified,” he explained, “is about real, practical training – and practical training that is linked to employment.”

Governors 'frustrated'

This was particularly crucial for offenders with low previous attainment, he added. “Governors, in particular, have become increasingly frustrated about the inability to do two things: provide a reliable process to get people to level 2 in English and maths, and get them to local employers.”

Stewart continued. “In the past, that has been quite tricky to do because you have had to get into quite complicated negotiations with your education provider.”

The main focus of the strategy is to give prison governors greater freedom and flexibility to offer an education that works for the offenders in their care.

The government plans to establish “consistency and minimum standards” by rolling out new mandated personal learning plans, from which data can be collected and monitored to understand prisoners’ progress.

Prisoner apprenticeship

The strategy will also “empower governors to commission the education provision most likely to meet employers’ requirements and prisoners’ needs”, and establish a new vocational training route – the prisoner apprenticeship pathway.

This will see offenders carry out training during their term in prison, linked to a 12-month apprenticeship after their release, representing “the chance to have a long period of resettlement in the community with a guaranteed job and a guaranteed income”.

The move to devolve power to governors was advocated by former justice secretary Michael Gove during his time at the MoJ – along similar lines to his push to give academies greater autonomy while he was education secretary. Unlike school leaders, however, prison governors are not education professionals – a difference that Mr Stewart acknowledges. The role of Ofsted in monitoring performance is therefore “absolutely critical”, he explained.

This is an edited version of an article in the 25 May edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click here. This week's Tes magazine is available at all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here.

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Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay is head of FE at Tes

Find me on Twitter @JBelgutay

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