A change I want to see in prison education: ‘Mirroring’ education in the community

Home > A change I want to see in prison education: ‘Mirroring’ education in the community

17 November 2022

In this blog, PLA member Edward draws on his lived experience to describe a change he would like to see in prison education, why, and what difference it would make.

Education in prisons is very different to education in the community. In prison, access to education can be difficult and courses above level 2 are rare, with a narrow curriculum. In this blog Edward explains why he thinks prison education should mirror education in the community.

One of the advantages of being a learning mentor working in prison education is that one sees both the absurdities of the prison system, and the tremendous efforts of those teaching professionals delivering a curriculum that is subject to the vicissitudes of central government diktat rather than the conventional wisdom of stressing the intrinsic value of education.

For me, it seemed ridiculous that in the prison where I served most of my time, there was no governor with any background in education, yet decisions were being made affecting the lives of men in their charge, particularly around the qualifications they could study for and the educational chances open to them to turn their lives around post-release. The absence of anyone with significant experience of education among the prison’s senior leadership team possibly accounted for many of the nonsensical decisions made by them in relation to education, and also the poor perception of education amongst large sections of the prison population.

For instance, at one stage the prison authorities signed some new education contracts resulting in the withdrawal of both Art and teaching English as a second language from the list of courses, despite the enormous amounts of available research stressing the benefits of Art to prisoners’ mental health and the rehabilitative process, as well as the prison containing large numbers of foreign nationals whose first languages were not English.

Fortunately, the outcome was reversed some time later, however, in many respects this decision highlighted how important education was within the prison system in general and, more specifically, how imperative it was that the curriculum delivered to learners within prisons should be of an equivalent standard to education provision in the wider community, both in terms of content and quality. In much the same way prison health care ought to be as good as, or perhaps even better than, health services on the outside. For many of us mentoring learners in the education department these were entirely logical conclusions to reach, especially given the exorbitant cost to the taxpayer of incarcerating people in the first place and the failure of successive governments to reduce re-offending rates. Surely, even those in prison are still citizens who deserve to benefit from a good standard of education in line with what is available to everyone else in the country?

Furthermore, these debates underlined a more fundamental question, that is to say, what is prison for? To punish offenders or to rehabilitate those convicted by the courts who wish to make positive changes and rebuild their lives for the better? Certainly, as far as most of those working in the prison were concerned, a conviction handed down by a judge was punishment enough, whereas a more important objective was to deliver a curriculum that not only raised attainment levels but also attempted to provide learners with meaningful qualifications for their future lives back in the community.

Sadly, notwithstanding the best efforts of the tutors within prison education departments, library staff and individual prison officers who support the ethos of education being one of the main routes out of re-offending, the achievement of comparable standards of prison and tertiary education is still a long way off.

The cumulative effect of Covid-19 restrictions and failures of leadership to strike the right balance between formal qualifications and other subjects which contribute significantly to ‘rehabilitation’ and resettlement, in addition to excessively rigid prison regimes that fail to take account of differing needs, especially amongst older and retired inmates, will only lead to worsening standards of education in prisons and a year-on-year increase in re-offending rates. Unless a more enlightened approach to the provision of education is taken by those in central government and the prison service, thereby ensuring that standards of prison education ‘mirror’ those in other education sectors elsewhere in the country, the British taxpayer will continue to foot the bill for a system which fails to support prison learners adequately, and still relies heavily on the goodwill of individuals and the efforts of third sector organisations.


* This blog is an opinion piece by a PLA member and may not represent the views of all members. It is the second in a series – ‘A change I want to see in prison education’ – written by PLA members with lived experience. Edward is a pseudonym.

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