One year after being released from prison, only 17 per cent of offenders have found a job.
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.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is concerned that too many prisoners are reaching the end of their sentences without securing basic skills in English and maths, with the education on offer neither meeting the requirements of the individuals concerned nor of employers. “As a consequence, there are too many low-level qualifications being delivered that reap little to no reward for ex-offenders when trying to secure a job,” states the ministry’s new education and employment strategy for prisons.
The document, published yesterday, aims to change this. “For those willing to engage, the system must deliver,” it states. “Our vision is that when an offender enters prison, they should be put immediately on the path to employment on release.”
This is an issue close to the heart of Rory Stewart, who was appointed prisons minister in January. He taught drama in an Oxford prison some 20 years ago. “That was a very formative experience,” he tells Tes.
“The really big hole in the system that we have identified,” he explains, “is about real, practical training – and practical training that is linked to employment.”
This is particularly crucial for offenders with low previous attainment. “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 continues. “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 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. It was published two years ago.
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.
It 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 government has already launched the procurement for the new prison education framework in England which, once in place, will allow groups of governors to choose the provider that best meets their needs.
To complement this, a “dynamic purchasing system” will enable governors to commission bespoke education in their own establishments quickly and with minimal bureaucracy, according to the MoJ.
“We have been having a lot of discussions with governors,” says Stewart. “What we don’t want is a situation where governors feel overwhelmed by this and that is why we are setting up these big national framework contracts. We are hoping to get the right combination of support from the centre to make sure that, for the core provision, you get really good provision.”
However, where providers are not meeting the requirements of governors, they should “be able to source quite quickly what they need”, he adds. “It is about flexibility, but it is about a balance of pragmatism and flexibility. I don’t want governors spending their whole time managing education contracts, but this will allow them to not tear their hair out.”
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 the push to give academies greater autonomy while he was education secretary. Unlike school leaders, however, prison governors are not education professionals – a difference that Stewart acknowledges.
The role of Ofsted in monitoring performance is therefore “absolutely critical”, he explains. “I am hoping this new strategy will put the building blocks in place to make services a bit more reliable and a bit more practical for the cohort that really struggles.”
One of Coates’ most controversial recommendations was the creation of a modular “adult” GCSE to allow a more flexible approach to learning for prisoners.
This was strongly opposed by school standards minister Nick Gibb, Coates told Tes back in 2016, who signalled that he would not approve such a qualification.
But Stewart says that, while the proposal for the adult GCSE is absent from the new strategy, it is “not off the table” as far as the MoJ is concerned. “We are looking at that. These are things we are considering and are working on,” he says.
A look at ways to allow prisoners to start a degree more than six years before their release – currently not possible because of regulations around student loans – is also still on the agenda, he says: “We want to find more flexible ways [of learning for prisoners].”
The thrust of the new strategy is welcome, according to Coates. “The key for me is the autonomy of governors to decide how they spend their education budgets,” she says. “It is about the ability to see, ‘What does the group of people I have [in my prison] need, and what is the context of my prison?’”
More data on re-offending rates and educational outcomes at prison level would help to drive improvements, Coates believes.
She also welcomes moves towards a prison apprenticeship: “We need to equip these prisoners. We need to stop being so risk averse about everything.”