Chief Inspector's blog: what's going wrong with education in prisons?

At every inspection, HMI Prisons assesses the progress of the prison against four areas – safety, respect, purposeful activity and rehabilitation and release planning – and awards a score: four for good; three for reasonably good; two for not sufficiently good; and one for poor.

Purposeful activity has consistently been the worst performing area since the inception of the tests in 1999, but scores have dropped even lower since pandemic restrictions were lifted. The last English prison to score more than two for purposeful activity was Bronzefield last January, and, so far in this reporting year, more than a third have been assessed as poor.

Education in prison has two important functions that ultimately help the establishment and the public to be safer. Prison should be an opportunity for prisoners to spend their time productively and to acquire the skills they need to go on to lead successful lives – it should give them the qualifications and the sense of achievement that will help them to behave both in jail and in the community. Education is a fundamental part of successful rehabilitation and yet it continues to be nowhere near good enough.

The previous education experience of many prisoners has been decidedly patchy – they often tell me that by age 11 they never really attended school, either because they began to play truant or because they were expelled. A large proportion of prisoners also have specific learning difficulties, and a report by the Prison Reform Trust suggested that 25% of prisoners have an IQ of below 80 and a further 7% below 70. These issues are compounded by other factors such as mental and physical health difficulties. For most prisoners there are large gaps in their learning, and therefore they lack the skills and knowledge to be able to find and hold down jobs when they are released.

Why, then, is prison education so poor?

I believe there are four main reasons, which of course are closely related.

  1. Education is not a priority in prisons.

It is fair to say that governors are less concerned about getting a low score from the Inspectorate in purposeful activity than they are for those in safety or respect. This reflects the priorities of a prison service that focuses on safety and security above, and often to the exclusion of, other areas of prison life. In an estate that is beset with difficulties – low staffing levels, overcrowding, crumbling jails – education does not get the attention that it deserves. Ministers might get sacked if there is a riot or a high-profile escape, but their jobs do not depend on whether prisoners are learning anything or not.

  1. Prisoners don’t attend the classes that are on offer.

Since I became Chief Inspector in November 2020, I have very rarely gone into a classroom or a workshop and found it full. Many seem to be completely empty or contain only a handful of prisoners, and those who are there often seem to spend more time sitting around chatting than they do learning. Inexplicably, restrictions on the number of prisoners who can be in each workshop or classroom that were brought in during the pandemic have often continued.

Staff will prioritise getting prisoners to essential work such as kitchens, waste management or the staff canteen over those who are signed up for education, which is often cancelled. These regime curtailments mean that both teaching staff and prisoners become demotivated by the uncertainty about who will get to education on any one day.

In one prison, the classrooms were almost entirely empty. I asked the three managers I found in an office drinking tea why nothing was happening, and they told me that staff sickness had led to the cancellation of classes. When I asked them why they could not teach the lessons, they looked at me in disbelief. Rather than go into class themselves – as any head teacher would have done – they had taken the easy option of phoning the wing and telling the officers not to bother. If this happened in a school and children were sent home parents would be up in arms, but in prison no one is that bothered.

While data governs many other aspects of prison life, it is telling that data is not collected by the centre on attendance rates in education.

  1. The curriculum is not suitable.

Ofsted has repeatedly highlighted the inadequacy of the curriculum in jails. In a recent inspection of a reception prison, where prisoners rarely spent more than six months, inspectors found that many of the courses that were on offer took a year to complete.

Our joint thematic with Ofsted last year on reading in prisons showed that education providers did not see it as their responsibility to teach prisoners to read – despite the staggeringly high levels of illiteracy in prisons. This meant that those in most need were passed on to a third sector organisation that uses prisoners to teach reading – worthwhile in theory, but entirely dependent on the willingness of wing staff to unlock prisoners and find them space.

During the worst of the pandemic, the only education most prisoners got was a pack delivered to their door; the quality was poor and unsurprisingly most prisoners did not engage. Unfortunately, education packs are still seen in some prisons as a substitute for face-to-face teaching with an expectation that prisoners, despite all the difficulties they have had with education in the past, will find this a useful way to learn.

  1. There is no clear accountability for the quality of education.

The fourth reason is, I believe, the biggest challenge. Prison education is contracted centrally by the Ministry of Justice, with four main providers in England who cover almost every prison.

Senior prison staff frequently tell me about their frustrations – while they may be able to resolve minor issues on the ground, anything more serious with contract compliance needs to go through the Ministry of Justice. This leads too often to a grudging acceptance of the status quo, particularly as education is not a priority for the central prison service.

Education providers, meanwhile, are deeply frustrated by the inability of jails to get prisoners to workshops or classrooms consistently. It is a near impossibility to run a service when you do not know when or which prisoners are going to attend, so it is no surprise that providers struggle to attract enough high-quality staff.

While every aspect of education in schools and universities is scrutinised by organisations and individuals from Ofsted, governing bodies and diocesan boards to parent and staff associations and individual parents, education in prisons receives nothing like the same attention. There are no league tables for attendance, attainment or progress in prisons that would allow comparisons in standards to be made. Accountability comes mainly through Ofsted inspections and while these consistently raise similar concerns, there are no other overseeing bodies or angry parents to hold providers and governors to account on a more regular basis.

This lack of clear accountability for education in prisons, divided as it is across a central team, individual institutions and the providers, poses the single biggest challenge to improving its quality.

It is a fantasy to think the challenges of prison education are going to be solved by turning the dials on a central contract. If we want to see outstanding prison education in the future, we need a radical solution that reduces central control and cedes power and accountability to governors.

They need to be made both responsible and accountable for the quality of education in their prisons with clear, public measures of success that show how their jail is performing against its peers.

Many do not currently have the experience or knowledge to be able to do this successfully and would need support from the centre or from their colleagues. Others are much more confident and could easily be allowed to take more responsibility for providing education if the centre was prepared to relinquish control.

For many years inspectorates have highlighted poor standards in prison education, but since the pandemic they have never been worse than they are now. Most prisoners will eventually be released from prison. If their time inside has not prepared them for employment, what do we really expect to happen on their release?

Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

Read the review on reading education in prisons