Changes to Ofsted prison education inspections

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30 August 2022

Ofsted have just re-issued their Handbook for the inspection of education, work and skills activities in prisons and young offenders institutions. The changes come into place on 1st October 2022. In this short blog, we look at the changes Ofsted are making to prison education inspections.


The current inspection framework for inspecting education in prisons has been in force since February 2020 and focuses on curriculum intent, implementation, and impact. Early indications were that prisons and education teams found the new process more helpful. Unfortunately, as prisons went into lockdown in late March 2020, it could be argued that there has not really been an opportunity for the new inspection framework to be fully embedded.


Inspecting during the pandemic

During the pandemic, because of the risk of Covid infection, and the associated restrictions, Ofsted carried out inspections in different ways:

  • Initially, Ofsted suspended routine inspection activity in prisons from 17th March 2020.
  • Between December 2020 and May 2021, they undertook remote interim visits (usually alongside HMIP scrutiny visits).
  • From 17th May 2021, Ofsted carried out progress monitoring visits, awarding a single process judgement, and carried out either with HMIP or alone.


Inspecting during recovery

Ofsted resumed full inspection in October 2021. During this period, prisons have been adjusting to coming out of pandemic restrictions and dealing with a significant staffing crisis. So, for the past year or so, while Ofsted have carried out full inspections in prisons, they have also considered the impact and context of COVID-19 when making judgements. These take into account some of the challenges prison and education teams are experiencing, while also expecting staff to be making every effort to provide as much activity as possible for their prisoners.


October 1st changes

As of October 1st  2022, the ‘transitional period’ is over. While Ofsted will be seeking to understand the impact of the pandemic in the prison, they will be holding prisons to account on what they are delivering – and not delivering. They will look at how prisons implemented the curriculum remotely and the effectiveness of any remote education that is still in place.

Ofsted recognise that there have been changes and that some courses or activities might be offered on a short-term or more limited basis. However, they will want to see that these are the appropriate activities for the people who can access them and there must be a clear plan for returning all prisoners to a full programme.

Ofsted also recognise that the pandemic has had a significant demotivating effect on some learners. They say that ‘this could mean that their attitudes are not yet in keeping with the establishments’ high expectations.’ Ofsted expect staff to take intelligent, swift, and highly effective action’ to support a prisoner who is struggling.


Inspecting PEF providers

Ofsted inspect all education, work, and skills activity in prisons, which means they are assessing the impact of PEF provision, alongside activity provided through the DPS, voluntary sector activity, industries, and prison work parties. However, HMIP inspect gym, library and arts provision as part of their assessment of time out of cell and purposeful activity.

PEF providers have been advocating for a separate judgment for their specific education delivery, arguing that prisoners’ access to and attendance in education classes is not within their control. However, Ofsted have decided against a separate judgement for the education provider. Instead, there will be a paragraph that clearly identifies the PEF provision and describes the providers performance so that this can be clearly identified.


Focus on reading

Another key focus in the updated handbook is that reading has a higher priority. Following the HMIP and Ofsted report, which identified a number of areas of poor provision, Ofsted have additional requirements about identifying and supporting people who have low literacy.

Ofsted will be looking at whether teachers, trainers and instructors have expert knowledge of reading and can ensure that prisoners make good progress with their reading skills. They will also review whether people in prison, particularly those who face longer custodial sentences, read for pleasure.

They will consider whether prison leaders are ensuring that prisoners’ knowledge and skills in reading are accurately identified and monitored, Ofsted will expect appropriate support to be in place for readers of all levels, including those who cannot read.


Next steps

The new inspection framework comes into force on October 1st, 2022, and so the first inspections reports using this will be published 3-4 months later. The Prisoner Learning Alliance will continue to review all inspection reports, and the impact of the new arrangements, as part of our ongoing commitment to monitoring the quality of education. We are also looking forward to  hearing from Ofsted’s lead on prisons at our conference on the 19th October.

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