Prison education: Ofsted attacks standards in jails

Prison officer locking cell door The inspectors say education is vital in the rehabilitation of prisoners

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Ofsted inspectors have strongly criticised standards of education and training in England's prisons.

The watchdog says it is unacceptable that not one prison has been rated "outstanding" for education in the past four years and only one in three is rated "good".

At Wormwood Scrubs jail in London, Ofsted chiefs said if the figures related to schools there would be a "national outcry".

Ministers say reforms are under way.

In a speech at the prison, Matthew Coffey, national director of further education and skills at Ofsted, said the aim of training and education in jail should be to make people less likely to go back to crime when they got out.

"This year's annual lecture aims to focus on how we can reduce the high re-offending rates that are nearly 50% for adult prisoners and 72% for juveniles," he said.


Frank Harris, 53, says he was in and out of prison for more than 30 years before he found his "way out" through education.

Expelled from mainstream school at 12, he says he was "delinquent" for 18 months, before being sent to a reform "boarding school", where he says there was no proper teaching.

"I'd come home every two weeks - my family would not know me, I had no friends. I'd go around by myself and began breaking in to cars, doing rubbish stuff because I was lonely, bored."

Shortly after that, Frank says, he began to get custodial sentences for theft and fraud and "that was it for 30 years".

It was during his longest stretch in jail - four years for drug smuggling in 2004 - that Frank decided to turn his life around.

He did basic skills lessons in English and maths before getting grade A GCSE in English.

After leaving jail, he says he was very tempted to go back to his old way of life but instead got in touch with a charity which had supported him inside and then did a course through the Prisoners' Education Trust .

He went on to do paid work with homeless people and drug addicts before starting a degree in criminology.

Frank mentors and offers counselling to people with drug problems and has helped the police to tackle gang culture.

What was his turning point?

"I wasn't getting any younger. I was thinking what will my four kids do if I dropped down [dead]? If they said I was in and out of prison... that I wasted my time on earth. Now they can say I made mistakes but I tried to do something different. That pushes me on.

"I'm still enjoying my education and still have something to give back."

Read more of Frank's story

"The aim is to reduce the number of re-offenders by focusing on rehabilitation in prisons through better employer engagement and better teaching and training."

Levels of education among prisoners are generally much lower than in the population as a whole.

Some studies suggest half of men in UK jails and nearly three-quarters of female prisoners have no qualifications at all, while about half have literacy skills below that of most eleven-year-olds. Many have been expelled from school.

Mr Coffey said: "Far too many prisoners leave prison without employability skills, meaning they are less likely to find a job. Research shows that being in employment is one of the key factors that can reduce the risk of re-offending by between 30% and 50%. However, examples of good training provision in prisons were all too scarce.

"Clearly, reducing the number of those re-offending is in everyone's interests. Every prisoner costs the taxpayer the same as sending a child to Eton, around £34,000 per year. We must now focus on improvement of prisoners' vocational and employability skills to ensure we support them on their journey out of prison and into employment to break the cycle of re-offending."

He added that there were "outstanding examples" of prisons working with employers, education providers and other bodies to help prisoners develop vocational skills, but that those examples, were "all too scarce".

Education in prisons in England and Wales is provided by private bodies which bid for contracts.

Second chance

Prisons Minister Jeremy Wright said: "Re-offending rates have been too high for too long and we are introducing significant reforms to the way offenders are rehabilitated and managed in the community.

"We are committed to improving education in prison and are working with the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and the Skills Funding Agency to develop prisoner learning."

In most countries in the European Union, only about one in four adult prisoners takes part in education, according to a report for the EU published earlier this year, out of 640,000 inmates.

In England and Wales, the proportion is higher, with an estimated 42% receiving some kind of prison education, which has to be provided by law.

The EU report said prisons were all too often "environments for negative learning" when they could be offering people a second chance.

According to the University and College Union, which represents many prison teachers and trainers, the "constant re-tendering" for education contracts brings problems, including a high turnover of staff and instability.

They say because providers are paid by results, some teachers feel under pressure to limit courses to certain offenders and those in for longer terms.

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