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'Where's the public outcry over prison education?'

Low standards in prison education highlighted by Ofsted should be a major cause for concern, writes one ex-prisoner

The quality of prison education is worrying when so many inmates are relying on it to improve their lives, says one ex-offender

As someone who has lived in prison and is now working to reform it, last week’s Ofsted annual report concerns me deeply. The figures show an overall decline in educational performance within our prisons, and that should cause alarm – not just to those involved within education, but also to society as a whole. There are four key points from the report that I would like you to consider.

Drop in level 3 courses

The number of people taking level 3 courses has fallen from 2,400 in 2012-13 to just 100 in the latest published data. This is an area of particular concern to me, especially with prisons becoming self-governing from early next year. I am aware that the budget for maths, English and ICT on the prison curriculum has been ring-fenced. But for any other subject, or anything above a level 2, it will be down to the individual learner, with support from the prison, to secure external funding. This is where my concern lies. Will governors, who may have an inclination against education, provide the necessary resources to allow higher education study?

Personally, I have studied at all levels in prison, from entry level through levels 1, 2 and 3. In 2016, through funding secured from the Prisoners' Education Trust, I successfully completed an access module in understanding people, work and society via the Open University. This led on to me starting a degree in criminology and psychological studies – something I am studying still.

The feeling of achievement I had from my incredible learning journey – which didn’t simply stop at the basics – has been the catalyst for the successful life choices I am currently enjoying. I’ve gained an enormous amount – and this means one less contribution to the reoffending rates!

Decline in Ofsted grades

Just 39 per cent of prisons were judged "good" for education in 2017-18. This percentage is exactly why I have concerns. In 2016-17, 54 per cent were graded "good", and 2 per cent "outstanding". This year, none got the top grade.

To gain employment, education is a must. The education levels of those entering our prisons make for grim reading. The data shows that 85 per cent of the country’s population have literacy skills at level 1 or 2, compared with only 50 per cent of prisoners. This has to change.

Having been employed in prison as an education mentor, I have been in the privileged position to witness the power of education on rehabilitation. One such personal example springs to mind – a guy whom we used to call “Billy the Broom” (not in a derogatory way, but because he was one of the best wing cleaners I had ever met). Billy had some difficulties when it came to read and writing, so I began mentoring him through the Shannon Trust reading scheme. On a visit a few months later, an officer came over with Billy’s mum, saying she would like a quick word. What followed will live with me forever. His mum gave me the tightest hug, and with tears in her eyes thanked me because, a few days prior to the visit day, Billy had written a letter to his mum for the first time ever. Now, tell me education is not important in all aspects of our lives.

Small improvement – but not enough

Across the prison education sector, the proportion of prisons and young offender institutions (YOIs) judged "good" or "outstanding" in their most recent inspection increased by six percentage points, from 42 per cent in 2016-17 to 48 per cent in 2017-18.

To look at this another way, it means that there are still over 50 per cent of prisons graded "requires improvement" or "inadequate". If this was comparable with our schools in society, there would be a public outcry. Yet hardly an eyebrow is raised outside of the prison system.

In respect of YOIs specifically, despite the small improvement, this is a very worrying set of figures. As Whitney Houston once sang, “The children are our future." Without even the most basic of educational skills, it would be almost impossible for a young person to rebuild their future after custody. In any young person/adult custody environment, education has to be the foundation from which to restart their lives. Once you find yourself in the revolving doors of the penal system, the one thing you have to grasp on to is hope. What chance do young prisoners have in adult life if hope has already been taken away?

Action needed to improve prison education

In my opinion, we can’t blame prison education departments for many of the faults highlighted by Ofsted's annual report. Staffing levels have been so low across the prison system that all purposeful activity, including education, has suffered as a direct consequence. The course facilitators I have come in contact with over the years, in my own prison learning journey, are some of the most committed and dedicated individuals that I have met in my life. But they are often under-appreciated, under-resourced and under pressure to focus on bums on seats rather than the quality of learning that’s going on – and whether the appropriate people are in the classroom when they’re delivering that learning.

In conclusion, education has to be the bedrock from which foundations are built in order for an individual to change their lives and, just as important, to cease offending. I’d like to join Ofsted’s call to action to improve prison education – so that education makes the life-long positive difference that I know it can.

David Breakspear is a prison reformer, blogger and alumnus of the Prisoners’ Education Trust

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