Lobby group says change to quality is being compromised, reports Martin Whittaker
The Government's radical shake-up of the delivery of prison education in England is happening too quickly to learn lessons from its pilot schemes, further education colleges fear.
The lobby group Forum on Prisoner Education also warns that the creation of an Offender Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) is happening at "breakneck speed".
The forum's director, Steve Taylor, said: "The issue is that the Learning and Skills Council has never had responsibility for prison education before, so it's a very steep learning curve for them. And I have some questions over the quality of the new service when it has been set up so very quickly."
Mr Taylor said the forum is also concerned over the recent announcement of pound;40 million cutbacks and the loss of 1,300 posts at the LSC. He has written to the LSC's chief executive, Mark Haysom, seeking assurances that the cuts will not affect changes to prison education.
Prison education reform and a commitment to improve the skills of offenders are at the heart of the Government's bid to cut re-offending rates, Last year, ministers announced that the existing programme for contracting out prison education, in place for a decade, was to be abolished. In March, a report by the House of Commons education and skills select committee branded the transfer of prisoner records "a disgrace" and criticised lack of leadership and ownership of prison education in Government.
It found that the transfer of responsibility to the Department for Education and Skills in 2001 "has not yet achieved a significant increase in the priority given to prison education".
The new Offender Learning and Skills Service will aim to integrate learning and skills provision for all offenders, whether in custody or in the community. The language has also changed - instead of prisoner education, officials now talk of "offender learning".
In December, advertisements went out seeking expressions of interest from agencies keen to deliver the new service across the LSC regions. Tendering took place in the new year and contracts were awarded in May.
In August, three regions - the North-East, North-West and South-West - began piloting the new service. Adverts were already going out inviting interest from potential bidders to run it in the remaining six regions from August 2006.
A full evaluation of the pilot areas will not be fully published until late 2006. And while the initial aim of OLASS is to bring coherence to offender education throughout England, messages going out to colleges seem confusing.
A manager at a college in one pilot area said the rush initially left its prison education provision in turmoil, with staff shortages and courses for prisoners disrupted.
He said: "Although we were led to believe that the initial plan was to look for whatever was to be the best model in the three prototypes and then choose that to go national, that now isn't happening."
He said he has now been told by the LSC that "it was going to be a mixed economy of possibly nine different ways of delivering prison education".
Evan Williams, the employment policy manager for the Association of Colleges, said the pace of change has been difficult for FE colleges.
"There was no consultation from the LSC," he said. Nobody knew what to expect. Yet, there is a wealth of experience in the sector and none of that has been used.
"We're moving on from that now for the six developing regions - again it has been quite fast, and I don't think they've taken time to learn the lessons from the last process."
The LSC has a small team in its national office overseeing OLASS. Jon Gamble, the LSC's director of adult learning, admitted that the pace of reform is fast but, he said, it was responding to the select committee report, which criticised the lack of change in prisoner education.
He denied that the LSC was coming into prisoner education cold. "As an institution, the LSC is the sum total of the expertise of its people, and there are significant numbers of people who've worked either in the sector itself or the administrative side," he said.
"I worked in the 1990s as a director of faculty, one of whose responsibilities was to manage the contract in the local prison. And all the members of the team I have put together in our national office have had past experience of working with offenders."
Phil Hope, the skills minister, said: "I know people will find change difficult. But these are real people who are either in prison or out in the community on sentences. And for too long they haven't had the kind of service that they should have been having.
"The reason for pursuing this so quickly is because the problem is so urgent, and my responsibility is to meet the needs of those individuals.
And if that means pushing hard on the pace of change, then I don't apologise for that."
Mr Hope denies that the speed of implementation will affect the quality of the service, and says he is confident that it will allow the LSC to learn and implement it as it goes along.
He said: "These are very experienced people. We have known what the problems have been, and therefore what the solutions need to be, for some time. And it's just about getting on and doing it now, quite honestly."