Warning on ‘parlous state’ of jail education

·2-min read
Education in prisons has been criticised  (PA)
Education in prisons has been criticised (PA)

Education in prisons is in a “parlous state”, with teachers often left in empty classrooms because prisoners have not been escorted to their lessons, a head of Ofsted has warned.

Matthew Coffey, chief operating officer of Ofsted, said it was “shocking” that teenagers months away from taking their exams often had to start from scratch because they move prisons when they are 18. He said he had never known a prison held accountable for poor education performance.

Speaking to MPs on the education committee, he said Ofsted had been producing reports critical of prison education for 10 years, but the situation had not changed.

He added: “There must be nothing more demoralising as a teacher than having prepared a lesson to perhaps a very challenging class to find nobody turns up, and I have seen those empty classrooms. I don’t think you would need many of those before you became disillusioned with the teaching in prison.”

Mr Coffey called for prison transfers to be delayed in cases where inmates are nearing the end of a qualification, and for more businesses to act like Timpsons, the shoe repair firm, which employs more than 600 ex-prisoners. Success stories are “the exception”, he said, and in too many cases classrooms are full of people “totally disengaged and unable to access whatever has been provided to them”.

He said: “There are no consequences for failure in this respect at all ... it’s frustrating. In every other walk of Ofsted’s life there are consequences — for a school it would be the Department for Education that would take action. But the Prison Service does not have the same arrangement. I have been at Ofsted since 2007 and have never seen a prison held to account for poor provision.”

Mr Coffey added that problems are often caused by the leadership and managers of prisons, rather than the four organisations that provide education in prison. But he was criticised by committee chairman Robert Halfon for not being able to name those four providers.

Over the past five years, about 60 per cent of prisons have been graded inadequate or requires improvement for education, skills and work by Ofsted.

This compares with just 20 per cent of other further education organisations inspected by the body.

Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman has said the pandemic has “undoubtedly” made the situation worse.

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