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The gap in skills in the UK is as wide as it was in the 1960s. Addressing this requires novel approaches to learning and skills, not least for those people in prison. James Crabbe FRSA argues that there is an opportunity emerging for the further education sector to play a significant role in improving outcomes.

The ‘classic’ view of education, at least in the UK, is of a unilinear mode of progression, from nursery/kindergarten to prep/primary school, to secondary, to university/conservatoire/art school, to post graduate-research or the professions. Further education, or skills and vocational training, feature as ‘second class’ alternatives to university and its potential neglected, particularly when it comes to those – such as people in prison –whose early experiences of learning have been disrupted or difficult.

The rate of reoffending amongst those who have been in prison has remained stubbornly high at around 50%; this is a serious drain on resources. Yet, education in secure environments and beyond can help people to progress, reduces recidivism, improves chances of employment and decreases the skills gap. A report from the Justice Data Lab in 2015 analysed education in prisons funded by the Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET). The analysis of nearly 6,000 prisoner records found that PET’s beneficiaries were 25% less likely to reoffend than the control group.

It is this kind of evidence that led PET to establish the Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA), which will bring together diverse non-statutory stakeholders to inform future priorities, policies and practices relating to prison education, learning and skills. Membership includes the Directors of the Prison Radio Association, the Open University, the National Alliance for Arts in Criminal Justice, NIACE (National Voice for Lifelong-Learning), the Education and Training Foundation, the Shannon Trust, and the Prison Governors Association. PET is also working with further education colleges and academics to develop courses that cover five broad themes: prison cultures; wellbeing; human capital; social capital and knowledge, skills and employability.

The Coates Review published earlier this year highlighted the poor quality of much existing provision and advocates “high-quality vocational training and employability skills that prepare individuals for jobs on release (e.g. through industrial work and training designed with and for employers)”. This should open the door to further education colleges working with those in prison, on release and serving sentences in the community, at the local level. The review proposed that, from August 2017, all governors be given the freedom to choose which education providers they want to work with. In addition to providing a potential new market for college recruitment and partnership working in a financially beleaguered sector, further education colleges can deliver innovative programmes to recruit and support students who have been involved in the criminal justice system to turn their lives around. This should open up new ways of improving employability in local communities, and help to decrease skills gaps and shortages so important in our economy. 

However, new approaches need to be coupled with wider culture change amongst prison leaders, employers and broader society. Too often prison learning has been output driven and had little to do with values; to be successful the further education sector needs to be about outcomes; inspiring and motivating change, providing links to employment and ‘real life’ on release.

While the government’s prison reform agenda remains far from clear, early emphasis on giving governors’ more freedoms over their operations and budgets, should open up the discussion about what quality and good governance of education in prisons, both at local and national levels. Ideally, the prisons and probation inspectorates should give more focus to learning outcomes and a new overarching governing body created to oversee governance issues around education across the prison estate. This should focus on progression and rehabilitative outcomes (including self-efficacy and employment) and ensure that robust measures of social value and impact are delivered consistently.

Professor James Crabbe FRSA is a Supernumerary Fellow, Wolfson College, Oxford and Chair of Governors, Central Bedfordshire FE College. 


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