Recovery in prison education is too slow

Home > Recovery in prison education is too slow

06 April 2022

Following on from their review of reading in prisons, Ofsted have just released their research on education recovery in prisons looking at how prisons are reintroducing activities following the pandemic lockdown. Recovery in prisons has been much slower than in the community and Ofsted found too little progress.

The research summarises the results of 41 inspections. Each was given a judgement of insufficient, reasonable or significant progress:

Only 2 prisons were making significant progress

28 were making reasonable progress

11 were making insufficient progress

However, Ofsted were clear that inspectors could only make a single judgement of progress. They say that many prisons were doing better in one or two themes, and this balance led to many ‘reasonable progress’ judgements.

Ofsted state that their expectation is that prisons should have been making significant progress during this recovery period and this is not good enough.

Inspectors found that prison leaders and managers remained too cautious about allowing prisoners back into education, skills and work. While very few learners were attending classes, the provision was generally good for those that could. The small amount of classroom activity was high quality, and valued by prisoners, who were highly attentive during lessons.

But there was not enough support for leaners to progress during recovery. And, similarly to the report on reading in prisons, inspectors found that learners needing the most support, often received the least.

In the two prisons making significant progress, staff continued to put education at the heart of their prison. This demonstrates what is possible, and what needs to happen everywhere.


Work packs

During the height of the lockdown, learners in prison could only access education through work packs, and these continue to be used. Inspectors found that the quality of these generally had improved and most learners felt well supported by their teachers.

But in-cell work packs do not meet all leaners’ needs. People with additional learning needs require more support and can find it difficult to learn independently using a paper pack. Inspectors also found that activities in some Level 2 packs were not challenging enough.

In addition, the range of courses that had been adapted into work packs was too limited, covering mainly English and Maths. There were too few work packs on vocational subjects. People were largely unable to access workshops and gain the practical skills needed to access jobs on release.

Other resources to support remote learning were scarce. While several prisons were using in-cell TV to deliver education, many were not making full use of the methods available. Leaners often had difficulty accessing other necessary resources, such as dictionaries, calculators and textbooks.

The PLA will continue to monitor this situation, and to advocate for effective support and resources in addition to work packs


Digital Technology

Despite the government commitment to roll-out digital technology in prison, the pace of this is disappointing. Ofsted found only two examples of prison using digital technology. In these prisons, a small number of learners could access laptops. Prisoners with English as an additional language could access computer programmes to develop communications, and people who wanted to start their own business could access self-employment courses. But, prisons did not do enough to develop prisoners’ digital skills and access to the Virtual Campus was minimal. If prison education is going to be effective, digital technology needs to be readily available to learners.


Additional learning needs

It is very concerning that support was insufficient for people with additional learning needs. Inspectors found three main areas of weakness: the identification of additional learning needs, communication of those needs, and teaching support. Most prisons performed well in one or two of these areas but not all. In some prisons, education staff had identified prisoners’ needs and put support in place, but this information had not been shared with residential units or workplaces. This meant that, outside of the education department, people did not receive the support they needed.

Although all people entering prison should be screened for additional learning needs, some prisons were still relying on prisoners to declare their own needs. In other prisons, people in education were screened but those in work or industries were not. Also, sometimes people had to complete basic assessments in their cells due to restrictions. Some managers had not returned to in-depth face-to-face screening once restrictions eased. Prisons must ensure that all prisoners are screened appropriately so that learning needs can be met.


Ofsted do not mince their words. They say,

The consequences of sacrificing education must also be acknowledged. Without access to education and training or adequate advice and guidance, prisoners are less likely to gain employment on release and more likely to reoffend. The Ministry of Justice estimates that the overall cost of reoffending was £18.1 billion in 2019. After 2 years of missed opportunities, there will be a significant cost – both for the future life chances of individual prisoners and to society.

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