Education in prison works

Wed 12 Nov 2014

Blog by Dr Julie Mills - Principal, Milton Keynes College

I had the fascinating experience of being called to Parliament this week to give evidence about Offender Learning to the Justice Select Committee.  Milton Keynes College is one of the three main providers of education services in prisons and Young Offenders Institutions so I was asked to go on behalf of the Association of Colleges.  There’s nothing like being asked questions about something to remind you how valuable it is and I was proud to be able to tell the committee members how we work in close collaboration with the prison service to make a difference to some seriously problematic lives.

Two women who recently left a Staffordshire Prison have gone straight into jobs.  They are the first successes from a project the College is running at Drake Hall women’s prison in partnership with Greggs, the High Street Bakery chain.  The “Greggs Academy” offers training and education placements which, if completed, guarantee a job interview on release.  It may not sound like such a big deal but it really is.  Ex-offenders who find employment are massively less likely to get into trouble again.  If they don’t reoffend there’s the fundamental benefit of protecting otherwise future victims and of course there’s a financial element. A saving of about £80,000 per year to us taxpayers for their prison place.  If they’re in work, they will be paying tax and spending money in their local economies.  If they have children who they can support that’s a saving to social services – then there’s the costs of policing, the court system and so on.  It doesn’t take much in-depth analysis to see serious value-for-money, not to mention value for the improvement in the lives of those women and their families.

Education is not an easy thing to provide in prisons.  Classes and workshops have to be incorporated into the effective functioning of the regime.  Prisons have been hit by the austerity cuts in much the same way as the rest of the public sector.  Most are, for obvious reasons, sited out in the countryside, which makes staff recruitment more difficult and there are shortages in many establishments.  What matters, and what Drake Hall proves, is that when the agencies involved, like the prison authorities and ourselves, have shared objectives and understanding, great things can still be achieved.  As ever, it’s not just about how much money there is to spend but how effectively it is spent. 

The other vital element is common to mainstream education as it is to Offender Learning.  Top quality Information, Advice and Guidance ensures that prisoners are steered towards the courses and styles of learning which will provide them with a potential pathway to employment.  Traditionally in prisons there is an Allocation system which determines who will go to classes or to work groups or to any other of the activities available.  The pressure of limited staff numbers makes it difficult for the prison service to carry out this work, so in some places College staff have taken on the role.  This is precisely the kind of cooperation which can only happen where there is mutual trust and shared sense of purpose but it is a way of making the money go further and to greater effect. 

One of the areas the MPs wanted to know about was whether there is a tension between the demands of education and work within prison walls as both demand time and resources of the system.  In actual fact, where there is this understanding the two can complement each other with, for example, qualifications being achieved within work.  Again, it’s about common purpose.  In one instance, a member of College staff gave a clear and powerful presentation to regional prison managers so that they really got it.  Education delivery improved by 10%, precisely because everyone was working together more creatively with a higher level of understanding and shared objectives.  

Education and training and the teaching and learning of employability skills are probably as important in prisons as anywhere.  They’re not luxury optional extras.  If rehabilitation and a reduction in reoffending are primary goals for the prison system, they represent money well spent for all of us.

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