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'Chaotic' adult prison education system crying out for overhaul

18 May 2022

Education must be at heart of prison system, say MPs, as new report highlights freefall in quality of and engagement with existing provision.


Almost two thirds of prison inspections show poor quality management of the quality of education, skills and work, and the number ranked 'good' or 'outstanding' has fallen dramatically in the past year. At the same time, the number of prisoners participating in education qualifications has plummeted. In the year 2017/18, the number of prisoners participating in a course equivalent to AS-levels or above showed a 90% decrease compared to the 2010/11 academic year. 

In a new report, the House of Commons Education Select Committee highlights the cracks in a clunky, chaotic, disjointed system which does not value education as the key to rehabilitation. This is, say MPs, despite clear data showing that prisoners who participate in education whilst incarcerated are 7.5 percentage points less likely to reoffend than those who don't.  

Recognising employment as one of the core pathways to rehabilitation, the Committee campaigned for prisoners to be allowed to study for apprenticeships, a recommendation which the Education and Justice Secretaries accepted in February 2022. This is, says the report, a welcome ‘renewed focus on prison education’. 

However, without significant reform throughout prison education, many prisoners lack the support and tools still needed. The report underlines the failure of prisons to assess the individual educational capabilities and needs of every prisoner, and to identify prisoners with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). Without rigorous educational screening, access to the support and services needed is severely restricted, hampering the ability of prisoners to engage with educational courses.  

Key findings include

  1. Failure to assess educational needs
  • Over 30% of prisoners face learning challenges, although this is likely to be a gross underestimate, given that until 2019, self-assessment was the primary tool used to determine educational needs. 
  • The Government's "two-part screening tool", introduced to identify learning difficulties, is not adequate to identify prisoners with additional learning needs and is not consistent across every prison.
  • There are only 25 qualified Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators (SENCo) across all public prisons, equating to around one SENCo for every four prisons.
  1. Education undervalued and under resourced 
  • The 2016 Coates Review of prison education recommended that prisons place education at the heart of the system. Six years later, this ambition has not been pursued or met, and the quality of prison education has declined. 
  1. Learning is disincentivised 
  • Prison education is often paid at a lower rate than unskilled work, acting as a disincentive to engage with education- with which many prisoners have had previously negative experiences.
  • Prisoners' education is severely hampered by transfer between different institutions, as the transfer of educational records is often delayed, or does not happen at all, leaving transferred  prisoners disheartened and often leading to the abandonment of studies. 
  1. Incentives must be provided- to prisoners and businesses
  • The proportion of former prisoners in P45 employment on year after release is just 17%, but data shows that employment is one of the most important factors in reducing reoffending. 
  • The Government's commitment to improving the links between prisons and businesses is welcome. 
  1. A digital divide
  • The majority of prisons in England and Wales do not have the cabling or hardware to support broadband, stifling opportunities to learn remotely though courses such as the Open University. 
  • Lack of digital access is widening the digital divide between prisoners and the wider population, restricting the ability to acquire employment and life skills. A change in attitude to technology in prisons is long overdue. 


  1. Rigorous assessments: The Government must introduce a rigorous screening and assessment process to evaluate the educational needs of each prisoner. Consistent across prisons, the process would determine levels of ability and identify prisoners with SEND and additional learning needs. The outdated education data and case management platform currently used is not fit for purpose, and must be re-designed to allow multiple learning difficulties to be identified and recorded. Funding must be properly allocated to allow for one Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators (SENCo) per prison.  
  2. Culture shift within prisons: There must be a 'culture shift' within prisons, embedding education within institutions. The Government must demonstrate its commitment to this aim by appointing a Deputy Governor of Learning for each prison. Prisons should also have clear and meaningful KPIs related to education, employment and training, which would be monitored by Ofsted.
  3. Individual digital education passports: Digital education passports should be introduced, containing a record of each prisoner's learning and educational needs, which would facilitate better transfer of studies across the prison estate. Prisoners' ongoing education- and whether their studies can be sustained- should also be taken into account when considering moving prisoners. The Government must also consider incentivising learning for prisoners who can demonstrate progress with their studies, including pay equal to prison work.
  4. Financial incentives for businesses: Businesses must be encouraged- through financial incentives- to overcome reservations about employing former prisoners. In any future review of the Apprenticeship Levy, the Government must allow businesses to direct the Levy towards prisoner rehabilitation schemes. The Government must also commit to publishing a clear timetable, setting out the roll-out of employment hubs across the prison estate and the establishment of Employment Advisers within the prison system.
  5. Transformation of digital infrastructure: The Government must carry out an audit of physical infrastructure necessary to provide high level of education across the prison estate. Prisoners must be equipped with the digital skills necessary for good employment opportunities upon leaving prisons.  Using technology for educational purpose only, which allows access to be restricted to approved content which can be monitored, prisoners should be permitted digital resources to study. 

Chair's comment

Chair of the Education Select Committee, the Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP said:   

“For the majority of offenders, prison must be a place where an old life ends, and a new one begins. The key to starting again is education. Education- from a practical apprenticeship to a masters' degree- increases employability, one of the most important factors in reducing reoffending. The argument for placing education at the heart of the prison system is a no-brainer: prisoners who engage with education and those who find employment on release are statistically less likely to reoffend. 

"Yet, six years after these points were set out to the Government in a landmark review, prison education is in a chaotic place. Shambolic transfer of records, no assessment for educational needs and the lack of access to modern learning tools add up to paint a dismal picture. The Government has shown its commitment to enabling ex-prisoners to climb the ladder of opportunity by extending the apprenticeship scheme to prisoners, and I thank Nadhim Zahawi and Dominic Raab for recognising how important this is. However, there must be a root-and-branch overhaul that extends throughout prison culture.  

"The prison system must be held accountable for preventing re-offending, and therefore for making education accessible and high quality. I urge the Government to carefully consider the steps set out in the Committee's report, which would reframe learning within the prison system." 

Further information

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