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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Prisoners' basic skills: what happened to the Government's commitment?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 2 December 2016

Brian Creese. 
The pace of academic publishing is something most researchers accept, but I’m sure that others feel, as I do, that the excitement of having findings published seems slightly historical as their research has moved on. Or in the case of prison education, everything has moved on. So delighted though I am by the publication of my article on prisoners’ basic skills levels I thought this might be an opportunity to outline developments since this was written.
A year ago, when I posted my initial report on prisoner basic skills, the world of prisoner education was very upbeat, even expectant. The surprise appointment of Michael Gove as Minister of Justice appeared unexpectedly positive. The Coates commission was collecting evidence and would subsequently come up with a series of recommendations which would win almost universal support from those working in prison education. Prisons were mentioned in a Queen’s Speech for the first time in decades and the topic of ‘prison reform’ was on everyone’s lips… Then came Brexit, Gove’s failed leadership bid and the emergence of a new Government, a new minister, a new set of priorities.
The Coates reforms, while still theoretically government policy, look ever more fanciful in (more…)

If staff shortages mean prisoners can't reach education, no amount of good practice will help

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 3 August 2016

Brian Creese
The large attendance at last month’s Centre for Education in the Criminal Justice Sector (CECJS) conference at UCL Institute of Education attested to the new profile prison education enjoys. It comes on the back of the recently completed Coates Review, soon to be published review of the youth justice system by Charlie Taylor and the Lammy review into racial bias in the system. As we all know, history moves quickly these days, so the question on everyone’s mind was how long Michael Gove would last as Justice Secretary; we soon had the answer…
Even longer ago, a couple of months perhaps, the former Prime Minister made the former Justice Secretary’s prison reforms the centrepiece of a government Queen’s Speech. Where are those reforms now, we ask?
The official answer from our new (and already beleaguered) Justice Secretary Liz Truss is that it is all safe in her hands, but the reality seems to me to be more complicated. I had the great (more…)

Prison reform: has the revolution begun?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 20 May 2016

Brian Creese. 
Wednesday was an exceptional day for all those involved in prison education. The Coates review, Unlocking Potential: a review of education in prison was published and prison reform took centre stage in the Queen’s Speech. After so many years of policy vacuum, apart from measures that served to ensure the inexorable rise of the numbers in prison, this was a momentous occasion. For many in the education world, it is ironic that the hero of the hour is none other than our former Department for Education nemesis, the new Justice Secretary Michael Gove.
But surely his major proposal is simply a rehashing of the academies programme for schools into an academies programme for prisons? If we didn’t like it then, why would we like it now?
This is a reasonable question, and the answer has to do with the starting point. Most local authority schools operate well and many very well. There are few very poor schools in (more…)

Prisoner literacy levels: a worrying lack of statistics

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 16 July 2015

Brian CreeseNRDC (National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy) 

‘When I learned to read at the age of 16 I suddenly got in touch with education, with the chance of becoming a different kind of boy. Not the one always in trouble with the police. But someone who could in the end make the most of myself. Get behind literacy and you get behind social justice and social opportunity’.
John Bird

So starts the press release announcing the launch of a new campaign from Big Issue founder John Bird to highlight the importance of literacy and education for people in prison called ‘Right to Read (and write)’. The exciting bit for me was that Bird had noticed my continuing complaint about the lack of any real data about prisoners’ literacy and numeracy levels. John’s press release continues: (more…)

Teaching against the odds: education and the criminal justice system

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 26 March 2014

Brian Creese, NRDC (National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy)
A few years ago I filmed a group of young people in a young offenders institution. The group was doing car maintenance and I found it an enjoyable if slightly nerve-racking experience. What sticks most in my mind, however, were the comments from the Head of Learning. Teaching in a prison, he said, was like gathering all the most difficult, challenging and awkward students you have ever met across all your years of teaching and putting them into one class.
Many teachers, he told me, don’t last their first week. If they do, however, they will probably teach in prisons for the rest of their lives.
In general we think education is a ‘good thing’ for prisoners. Most governments accept that it can help prevent re-offending. In some countries it is even considered a human right.
However, there has been a change of attitude recently in the UK: the current government views education mainly as a way of improving a prisoner’s chance of gaining employment on release, and Ministers would actually prefer to see prisoners working than learning.
Many ex-offenders attest to the beneficial impact of education in prison, and some academic studies back them up, though most are too nuanced and subtle to support any overt political policy. Ideally, of course, education and work experience together give prisoners the best chance; the publicity around the recent opening of the ‘Clink’ restaurant at Brixton prison suggested that only one of the 80 or so prisoners involved in these schemes has ever re-offended.
All this is why I was interested to read the report “Prison Educators: Professionalism Against the Odds”, from the University and College Union (UCU) and Centre for Education in the Criminal Justice System (CECJS), at the IOE. The research is based on a survey which was returned by over one fifth of all prison teachers, and it tells us a great deal about this group. They are older than the average for further education, and better qualified but less well paid, with fewer holidays. This workforce is positive about the benefits of education in prison, highly motivated and enthusiastic – but many seem to be slowly giving up.

I’m rather glad I’m leaving prison education. I feel so sorry for my colleagues remaining in this downhill spiral. The young inmates are so suffering in lack of education it’s appalling to see inmates and teachers used as pawns by college, prison and government. Trouble is no one can breathe a word of this to the outside community, so it continues while society believes the inmates are where they should be. But surely without some help from good teaching staff this will never be corrected.

Prison teaching is overseen and funded by – another acronym – OLASS, the Offender Learning and Skills Service. The current regime is actually OLASS 4 because the current system is a result of the fourth re-tendering in its nine-year history. Not surprisingly, this constant re-tendering leaves teachers feeling insecure and unsettled. OLASS 4 also saw the introduction of ‘payment by results’, which, say teachers, disadvantages those prisoners who need education the most.

Payment by results is all very well but it actively discourages low ability learners from attending any form of education because they are unlikely to complete the course within the specified time – so the provider doesn’t want to take the risk of them failing and costing them money. 

Prison teachers are experienced, enthusiastic, well qualified and have a passion for their work. But this survey suggests that prison education is no longer seen as a viable career and is losing its potential to play a positive part in the rehabilitative process.

I strongly believe the current policy of payment upon results is totally WRONG – there should be a policy to help offenders once they are released from prison, currently they are thrown out with no support, often with nowhere to live, and no job – prison education is not valued by employers therefore the offenders feel they have no option but to reoffend to get a roof over their heads. Rehabilitation of the offender is not working at the moment.

The picture I gained from reading these distressing accounts from teachers is of a service dying a death by a thousand cuts. The prison population is hovering at just under 85,000. We send a greater proportion of our population to prison than any other country in Europe and they spend longer incarcerated than in other European countries. Rehabilitation must surely be the overriding aim of the service, not simply the narrow focus on job skills.
Education needs to be a central plank of the prison system. Prison teachers must be properly rewarded and supported and, perhaps most of all, valued.