Simon Midgley assesses the state of prison education through the role of a Manchester college and the experience of an inmate
THE single biggest provider of education in British prisons and the only one to service both state and private prisons is City College, Manchester.
It now serves 20 prisons and a secure training centre for under-16s in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and West Yorkshire.
Seventeen of these are state prisons and three are private establishments run by Group Four - Wolds in east Yorkshire, Buckley Hall in Rochdale and Altcourse in Liverpool.
Prior to the recent re-tendering exercise - where prison education providers were invited to bid for the service for the next five years - the college served just 12 prisons and one secure training centre.
More recently, City College has helped to re-focus the education and training curriculum offered in all the prisons in England and Wales.
With Amersham and Wycombe College and Bristol University, it produced a curriculum framework report, The National Core Curriculum For Prisons, in 1994, which emphasised the importance of prisons addressing innumeracy, illiteracy and the absence of basic skills.
Chris Frost, the college's director of prison education and training, says education in prisons varies from institution to institution.
Some prisons offer therapeutic activities, while others are more focused on training and qualifications. In short, prison education, he says, is something of a curate's egg.
City College, Manchester is unusual in that it has its own prison education directorate to support the work of its teaching staff in the prisons - about 200 full-time and 400 part-time teachers.
The annual prison education programme costs pound;8.5 million, which adds up to roughly one-third of the entire college turnover of pound;27m, and involves 5,000 prisoners.
Now the college is looking at working with the local probation services to support prisoners returning to the community in further learning and training.