The soaring growth in prison numbers is a wearily familiar story. We lock up far too many people: more than 80,000 at any one time, more pro rata than any European country. We are heading rapidly for US-style "hyper-incarceration, as Bryan Stevenson warned in a powerful Prison Reform Trust lecture late last year. Many of those will, on their release, head straight back into the same offending routines and networks as took them inside.
Better access to education is one way that dismal cycle can be broken. The vast majority of prisoners have extraordinarily low levels of educational achievement. About 30 per cent were regular truants from school; nearly half have no qualifications; nearly 40 per cent have reading skills below level 1. It's no surprise they find most occupational doors locked, and therefore revert to crime. Many don't even get close to knocking on the doors.
Crime and lifelong learning was one of the nine major themes in the Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning, which reported last year. We found that some improvements have been made in offender learning over recent years, with a growth in spending on the prison education service and more offenders getting basic skills training. But the system is still heavily counterproductive.
Any reasonable analysis shows how much more sensible it would be to invest more in well-designed learning provision. It costs at least pound;40,000 annually to keep one person in prison. We did some simple "public value" analysis of the benefits of reducing offending levels. Even a minor reduction of about 2 per cent in recidivist behaviour produces a saving of some pound;130 million - and this leaves aside the wider benefits to families and communities.
It is a shocking fact that 150,000 children have a parent in prison. What kind of a start does this give them? Of course, the offender has to take responsibility for this. But there is a wider duty to give these children a better start - by helping their parents to reintegrate into society.
What are the key points for action? First, all offenders should, when they first enter prison, undergo a very thorough diagnostic assessment. Many have disabilities, often undetected, which in part account for their earlier educational failure. Imprisonment offers a chance to identify these.
Many offenders start on courses but are then shifted at short or no notice to another prison. Losing the thread of their learning is just one of the many costs this inflicts on them. Greater stability to allow offenders to complete any course they have started would be a big step forward.
It is understandable that provision focuses on basic skills, for the reasons given above. But learning for personal development and creativity is an essential part of the package. It gives people self-esteem and a sense of identity, which is so often sadly lacking.
There are some wonderful initiatives which address these issues, such as the Safe Ground Family Man programme, encouraging communication skills and holding families together. But a wider and more sustained approach is needed.
This is not bleeding heart stuff. Punishment is an inescapable part of the response to crime. But the social, economic and moral case for better provision for offender learning is there. It will take political nerve to argue the case. Will we see it in the next few months?
Tom Schuller, Associate Director of Niace and co-author of `Learning Through Life'.