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Wisdom Wednesdays: Education is the way out of reoffending

In the first of a new blog series, which looks at topics impacting frontline staff in our Justice services as well as our partners in the Justice sector, we outline our recommendations for a reform of the prison education system, and the impact this would have on a prisoner's ability to find long-term employment post-release.

03 February 2021

This blog was originally shared as a guest post on Russell Webster.

Employment is the number one predictor of preventing re-offending. But education in our prisons – which provides the very path to finding a purpose – is failing. In most establishments, there is reasonable provision around basic Maths and English, and some general vocational qualifications are readily available (such as Health and Safety and Industrial Cleaning).  We have also seen qualifications in horticulture, painting and decoration, barbering, and peer mentoring – as well as occasional examples of prisoners undertaking distance learning studies, such as in law. But nationally, this practice is not widespread, and the quality and opportunities available are acutely inconsistent.

Participation in education must been seen as more than a diversionary activity while inside. Effective education can re-engage prisoners with a desire to learn and, given that almost half of prisoners were excluded from mainstream education during childhood, a belief that they can learn.

The inconsistencies are a result of the disconnect between a sentencing plan and education plan, the varying quality of the buildings and facilities available, alongside a poor access to digital technology and a lack of prison-specific training to give educators the tools they need within prison settings.

Catch22 is the only offender management unit in the country delivered by a third sector organisation. Our resettlement and gangs services supported 35,000 people in custody last year and, operating 23 custodial-based services across 20 prisons, we are a leading CRC supply chain partner for Through the Gate services.

Deeply ingrained in many of the most vulnerable communities in England, our frontline experts work with offenders both in prison and in the community, as well as with victims and young people at risk of criminal exploitation.

This is our summary of recommendations to the Education Committee’s inquiry into prison education.


Recommendations

Prisoners need a combined, personalised sentencing plan

  • An all-encompassing ‘Individual Development Plan’ is needed, rather than just a sentencing plan. It should incorporate education, behaviour, health, and employability, into a meaningful programme relevant far beyond sentence end dates.
  • Education offers must contribute towards addressing individual needs flexibly, rather than formal educational attainment.
    • Educational offers are pointless if they don’t address individual need. Some prisoners have been out of education so long that they are embarrassed to ask for basic reading classes. At the same time, a working professional who has committed a sex offence, and will not be able to continue their profession on release (such as a lawyer), will require complete reskilling within the prison gates – and a reading class is unlikely to result in any engagement.
  • Education contracts must promote collaboration, holding all relevant prison agencies accountable for employment outcomes.

 

There must be regular labour market reviews

  • An internal review of labour market needs in the resettlement areas of each prison must be undertaken, so that education provision reflects the market demand.
    • In HMP Ashfield for example, there was cohort of prisoners with an interest in industrial cleaning and a local market to match. The prisoners completed a course and formed a group who gave mock quotes for cleaning projects that need doing within prison estate. This allowed them to put their training into use, gain a qualification, and practice the vital skills of customer service.
  • The review must be with prisoner aspiration in mind, so that prisoner education can be tailored for the right employment prospects for the individual – whether that involves progression or complete reskilling.
    • There are some good examples of employers (such as Railtrack) running education courses inside prisons which lead directly into work upon release.
  • Prison and community to explore opportunities for prisoners to complete courses outside the prison if they’re released before the end of their course – working with both employers and colleges.
    • For example, a local construction company that one of our prison recently staff met with highlighted a local skills gap in construction, and they are keen to develop their social engagement and work with ex-offenders. This type of collaboration regularly happens in Norway.

 

Prisons need a digital revolution

  • The right infrastructure and equipment must be made available to enable prisoners to develop the essential digital skills they need to enter the job market.
  • Education in the prison setting should use the same tools used in society, so that prisoners are given a chance to re-establish their lives after serving a sentence.
    • In some establishments, there is the opportunity to access computers and develop digital skills. At Channings  Wood for example, the Storybook Dad’s project trains a number of prisoners up to use industry standard audio/visual software and equipment.
  • There must be a focus on flexibility of any educational offer, including digital training, depending on individual knowledge.
    • Catch22 advocates for apprenticeships within prisons and we see a future with adaptable, small modules which can be started inside, and continued in the community. For those not ready for an apprenticeship, they should be able to access basic skills and pre-apprenticeship programmes, such as Digital Edge within the prison education system.

 

Government must invest in prison educators  

  • Specialist training must be given to all prison educators to support them in delivering high-quality education. Teachers are dealing with disruptive learners, as well as high levels of mental health issues, substance misuse, many individuals who are often anti-authority.
    • A  Teach First or Unlocked Graduates-style prison education programme could develop high calibre prison educators.
  • Prison education must be subject to the same rules as schools if they fail to meet assessment standards.
    • Again, a model such as apprenticeships which starts within the prison and continues in the community, could ensure a well-monitored programme is in place.
  • The success of education provision must be based on distance travelled in terms of progress, rather than achievement of specific grades or certificates.

What next?

There is a serious lack of accountability for educational progress made by those inside cell walls. If education leads to employment and employment is the single biggest predictor of whether someone re-offends or not, surely our justice system has responsibility to prioritise this?

By reforming the prison education system, we can have a transformational effect on prisoners’ ability to find long-term employment post-release. Investment in education sets prisoners up towards long-term sustainable work – one which addresses both aspirations and risk – impacting re-offending rates and ultimately, rebuilding our society.

 


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