Robert Halfon: Prisons Need A Root-And-Branch Culture Change With Education At The Heart

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Robert Halfon (Photo: Official portrait - House of Commons)
Robert Halfon (Photo: Official portrait - House of Commons)

Robert Halfon (Photo: Official portrait - House of Commons)

When politicians talk about prisons, we talk about rehabilitation. Prison – for most offenders – is not a question of turning the lock and throwing away the key. Prison must be the key to starting a new life, and fundamental to this is education.

Prisoners who participate in education while incarcerated are 7.5 percentage points less likely to reoffend than those who don’t. And yet, as highlighted in the latest Report by the Commons Education Committee, which I chair, adult prison education today is in a chaotic state.

Nearly two in three prisons showed poor quality management for education, skills and work in the most recent round of inspections. Of the 32 prisons visited, only nine were graded ‘good’, and zero ‘outstanding’.

This is not an environment in which we can expect prisoners to attain the skills and qualifications they need to re-emerge into the world as employable citizens. As our report reiterates, one of the core pathways to rehabilitation is employment.

This is a no-brainer, and one I have campaigned hard for the government to recognise. In February, my amendment to the Skills & Post-16 Education Act, supported by my colleagues from both sides of the Commons, was accepted by the government, extending the apprenticeship scheme to prisoners.

This is a vital step in allowing prisoners to climb the ladder of opportunity and develop the skills to find stable, rewarding employment once they are released.

The government must now harness this shift by providing incentives for employers to hire former prisoners, in the form of tax breaks and allowing businesses to direct the Apprenticeship Levy to rehabilitation schemes. It is crucial that the reform does not lose momentum.

Welcome as the amendment is, it must contend with a cultural undercurrent which has disincentivised learning within prisons for nearly a decade.

The number of prisoners engaging with level 3 education (equivalent to AS-levels or above) has fallen off a cliff in recent years. Between 2010/11 and 2017/18, the decline was a shocking 90 per cent. What has happened?

Our report identifies the lack of value placed on education within the prison system, and the lack of incentives for prisoners to engage with courses. At present, prison education is often paid at a lower rate than unskilled work.

Prisoners must not lose out by choosing education. If they can demonstrate progress within their studies, education should be rewarded at the same rate as prison work.

Another telling example of the low value placed on studies is the casual way in which progress is disregarded when prisoners are transferred between prisons, leading to fragmented or abandoned courses.

Prisoners, ones initially engaged with their learning - naturally become disheartened as their progress is lost or delayed for months on end.

My Committee has called on the government to address this by introducing digital learning passports which would accompany prisoners throughout their incarceration.

Not only this, but the continuation of studies should play a key role in determining transfer. Completing or continuing learning must be a key factor in the decision made about transferring prisoners.

This is not the only area where a digital overhaul is sorely needed. One of the most shocking findings of our report is the failure of the system to assess the educational needs of prisoners from the off.

While, since 2019, some screening has been in place to assess prisoners for learning needs, it does not go nearly far enough.

The current estimate of 30 per cent for the number of prisoners with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is likely to be far smaller than the true number.

Moreover, our inquiry heard that there are only 25 qualified Special Education Needs Co-ordinators (SENCos) across all public prisons, equating to just one SENCo for every four prisons.

And it is not only SEND prisoners that the current system is failing. Many prisoners without SEND, given the proper screening to address their needs, would benefit from attention to gaps in their education, be that numeracy or reading.

The government must address this by introducing rigorous, formal assessment for every prisoner. It must also redesign its hopelessly outdated education data and case management platform, enabling the system to log multiple and complex needs.

Prisons must be held accountable for preventing re-offending, and to do so must recognise the individual learning needs of those incarcerated.

What is needed within our prisons is a root-and-branch culture change, one that reframes education and places it at the heart of the prison system.

This is not just good for prisoners, but good for society as a whole because we know that if prisoners get the right education they need, reoffending will fall significantly.

Robert Halfon is the chair of the Education Select Committee and Conservative MP for Harlow.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.

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