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Prisons: Education

Volume 828: debated on Thursday 23 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the potential merits of bringing the delivery of prison education into the public sector.

My Lords, core education in prisons is delivered by four providers: three classified as public sector providers and one as a private sector provider. Wider, non-core prison education is delivered by a range of suppliers, including the third sector. We are engaging with the market to encourage new providers to work with us to deliver high-quality prison education. We do not currently envisage fundamental change to the present system of outsourcing core delivery to specialist education providers.

Does the Minister agree with me, Charlie Taylor and the Education Select Committee that education is fundamental to rehabilitation, so the fact that current providers do not have teaching prisoners to read as their responsibility is staggering? Can the Minister agree to look, at least, at the launch of the prisoner education service as an opportunity to bring all prison education back into the public sector, with standardised curriculum and qualifications, which are so important when prisoners are moved, and standardised education staff contracts to assist with recruitment and retention?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. The Government entirely agree that prison education is vital for rehabilitation. In the Government’s view, it does not follow that education, particularly in relation to reading, should be brought back into what the noble Baroness describes as the public sector. Specifically on reading, I can report the Chief of Inspector of Prisons’ remarks of yesterday. Following his report last year, he considers that we are seeing some improvement in reading and that there are encouraging signs of good developing practice in relation to reading education in prisons.

My Lords, as a member of the Justice and Home Affairs Committee, I know that the Minister has recognised the huge importance of prison education. Have His Majesty’s Government assessed the potential benefits of doubling the prison education budget, and, in particular, have they assessed the impact of such a policy shift on reoffending rates?

My Lords, the Government currently spend about £125 million a year on the core programme and a further £30 million on special development strategies. In relation to the future, we are developing new contracts from 2025, and I am sure the question of the budget will arise in that context.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, made the point about rehabilitation being so vital. Can my noble and learned friend publish statistics to show the variable reoffending rates between those who do not get qualifications and various other things from education in prison, and those who do? I think this could be very interesting and salutary information.

My Lords, the Government are committed to improving the statistics in this area, and I will investigate whether we can publish that further information.

My Lords, the best education in the world, public or private, is useless if there are not the staff there to enable prisoners to get out of their cells to receive it. But if they could, the education service has been carved up by just four main providers, and governors have little or no say in who delivers education in their prisons. The House of Commons Education Committee report has already been mentioned. What are the Government going to do about this issue?

Staffing levels are a continuing problem, but full-time equivalent prison officers have increased by 3,677 between 2016 and December 2022; it now stands at 21,632. In the Government’s view, there is no problem with the quality of our existing providers. The challenges of prison education are evident to all, and the Government are doing their best to tackle them.

My Lords, when I conducted the review into self-inflicted deaths in prison some years ago, a very substantial issue arose about the cancellation of education sessions simply because there were insufficient staff to transport prisoners to education venues within prisons or, alternatively, because prisons were locked down. What proportion of education sessions do not go ahead for the reasons I have described? If those statistics are not collected, could the Minister explain why this rather important performance indicator is not looked at?

My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord the information he rightly seeks, but I will see if I can. Attendance at classes is an ongoing issue. It is sometimes due to staff shortages. We have introduced new KPIs for prison governors which include attendance, among other things, so I hope to see improvement in this area.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that a vital part of prison education is to help former offenders into gainful employment at the end of their sentence? A number of businesses such as Timpson, under the inimitable Sir John Timpson, have done pioneering work in this field to help prevent recidivism. What more can the Minister do with his department to encourage other firms to follow Timpson’s example?

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend in paying tribute to Timpson. There are many other employers with which we are in close touch. The Prison Service has recently introduced prison employment advisory boards in all prisons and an employment innovation fund, and heads of education, skills and work will be established across the prison estate. This is all to improve post-prison employment, which is, I am glad to say, on the increase.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that prisoners have probably the highest density of special educational needs of any group in society? All these groups need different learning patterns compared to the norm to be successful. Is the prison education service equipped to, first, identify and, secondly, provide the extra different types of learning to this client base? If not, it is not going to succeed.

I agree with the noble Lord that the Prison Service needs to be equipped, and I respectfully suggest that it is. There are a whole range of things here. There is the core curriculum, which is made up of English, maths and digital skills; vocational courses, such as construction; personal development courses; and digital personal learning plans. I assure the House that the Government are on the case and working hard to improve matters.

My Lords, the Open University offers a range of introductory access modules funded by the Prisoners’ Education Trust, under the banner of “Steps to Success”. They have been specifically designed to help students find out what it is like to study with the OU, get a taste of a subject area, develop study skills and build confidence. As a former teacher, I can tell your Lordships that those things are vital. Does the prison estate have the facilities to offer such excellent distance learning, and who would meet the cost of these courses that are on offer?

My Lords, there is a problem within the prison estate in relation to distance learning from external providers, because most prisons do not have external access to the internet. There is an intranet, and it may well be that in due course organisations like the Open University are encouraged to access that facility. But I take the noble Baroness’s question and will investigate further.

My Lords, I am sure the noble and learned Lord knows about the Clink Charity, which sets up restaurants in prisons where prisoners are taught by chefs and then serve meals to the general public. If any noble Lords do not know about this, I urge them to go to the one in Brixton. These now have a 49.6% rate of lowering reoffending, because prisoners come out with a job and a skill and somewhere to sleep, which is arranged. This all depends on the good will of the governors. Can the Minister assure the House that he will encourage such projects? I think there are seven now, but there could be many more.

My Lords, the answer is yes. Prison governors are now specifically required to have regard to developing employment opportunities for those in prison, attendance rates at courses and other matters. I pay tribute to Clink, which is a very well-known and respected organisation. Similar programmes are being offered by other employers, and this is all, I respectfully suggest, good progress.

My Lords, in my experience with broader education projects such as Debating Matters Beyond Bars, I have found that private sector prisons can be more flexible and less bureaucratic than some state-run prisons. Does the Minister agree that we should focus less on who provides prison education and that education should be given far more priority? Does he also agree that prison education should not be limited to literacy, as it often is, but should be far more imaginative?

My Lords, the Government regard prison education with high priority and are working to improve its imaginative and innovative aspects all the time.