Baroness Stroud is the Executive Director of the Centre for Social Justice.
Whilst commentators focused on political shenanigans at Westminster, and which Bills made the cut and which didn’t in a slimmed-down Queen’s Speech, relatively little attention was given to the publication of Dame Sally Coates’ important review into prison education. The Government’s life chances agenda has reached the prison gates, bringing government reform to the people who arguably need it the most.
This review puts political rocket boosters on plans to make 2016 the year of ‘social reform’. Prison reform is not a fringe issue. It impacts us all – with the same prisoners being released, committing crimes in our neighbourhoods…and then going back to prison.
The need for prison reform is clear. Almost 50 per cent of prisoners are convicted again within a year of release, while crime by ex-prisoners costs society up to £13 billion each year. We send offenders to prisons because we believe they should be punished for breaking the law, and because we want to protect the public from individuals who pose a threat to society.
But we can do so much more than this: prison terms also provide opportunities to understand the problems that lead individuals to crime, unlock their potential, and ensure that they embrace and contribute to society rather than threaten and undermine it. Prisons can, in other words, be engines for social justice – not just holding pens for criminals.
The Centre for Social Justice provided the backdrop for the launch of the review yesterday, and heard from Michael Gove that the Government has agreed to implement the review in full. This is real reform, providing the Government with a road map for turning our jails into centres of educational excellence. This is a legacy-defining agenda, and if the Government can match implementation to ambition, these plans will make a huge difference.
At the heart of the review are plans to give prison governors full autonomy to turn prisons into centres of educational excellence, equipping prisoners with the skills to find long term, meaningful employment on release. Dame Sally has established a framework for ensuring our prisons will be measured on how successful they are in providing every prisoner with a Personal Learning Plan, improving the life chances of thousands of prisoners and reducing the likelihood they return to crime.
Governors will be given control over education budgets and choose education providers. They will be free to design personalised curriculums for each of their inmates, and to introduce incentive frameworks to encourage attendance of classes and personal development. This more flexible approach makes good sense. Prison populations are not homogenous; inmates have diverse educational experiences, and governors should have the freedom to explore what is effective at an individual level rather than adhere to rigid templates. With their detailed grassroots knowledge, governors are uniquely placed to assess educational needs and come up with solutions that work.
Half of all prisoners have no qualifications and most have experienced the shockwaves of social breakdown. Without tangible career goals and the support to get them there, ex-offenders risk relapsing into lives of crime, with damaging consequences regarding public safety, social cohesion and public funds.
Possibly the most eye catching proposal contained within the review are plans to encourage the country’s top graduates to work as prison officers. Under the Teach First-inspired scheme, graduates would commit to an initial period of two years, covering areas such as security, supervision and support. Graduates completing the programme might then have the opportunity to join the National Offender Management Service’s graduate scheme, designed to open up senior leadership roles. Teach First-style prison officers will be challenged with promoting education in prisons, leading classes and supporting education programmes. Dame Sally has laid down the gauntlet to prison staff. Education now comes first.
Dame Sally has been bold in her ambition to ensure that life transformation is at the heart of her plans. Almost two thirds (of prisoners currently leave prison without a job or some form of education or training course – this can’t go on.
The Prime Minister and the Justice Secretary are to be applauded for shining a spotlight on the importance of education in efforts to rehabilitate prisoners. This is a big first step in refocusing the debate and, more importantly, in turning around lives. Earlier this year, David Cameron made a big speech on prison reform; in amongst the rhetoric around supporting prisoners, the Prime Minister left out any mention of the importance of family life and stable relationships in reducing reoffending on release. The Government’s own research into reoffending shows prisoners who have no family contact whilst in prison are 39 per cent more likely to reoffend than those who have received family visits. Maintaining strong family relationships should also be at the heart of any rehabilitation strategy.
Cameron should urgently bring his family stability agenda to the people who need the love and support of family life the most. From the Centre for Social Justice, we give Dame Sally Coates and Gove three cheers – and ask the Prime Minister to turn his attention to the importance of family relationships alongside implementing the reforms in this review in full.