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Re-energising education for prisoner rehabilitation

A prison corridor, with barred cells down one side and at the end

Education has been a life-changing factor for so many people, and yet it’s still not being taken seriously as a means of supporting rehabilitation in UK prisons, argues The Open University's (OU) Professor Rosalind Crone. New research will examine the history of prison education as a means of re-making prison schools that engage prisoners and open up new and genuine opportunities.

Prison education in the UK has been allowed to fall into a serious state of decline: neglected, unappreciated and ineffective. That’s according to recent reports from the House of Commons Education Committee, Ofsted, and the HM Inspectorate of Prisons, building on previous calls for urgent reform by Dame Sally Coates in her review of prison education in 2016.

“The system is known to be chaotic, quality levels in terms of teaching and learning can be low, and fewer and fewer prisoners are actually accessing the opportunities available,” said Professor Rosalind Crone, Head of History in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

“Outside of prison, education clearly plays a central role in people’s lives, working as a motor of opportunities, for employment, citizenship and wellbeing generally. The potential of education as a rehabilitative tool inside prisons has long been recognised but has proved very difficult to realise beyond changing the lives of a very small minority. Why has this been the case, and why have successive calls for reform failed to produce meaningful change?”

The provision of education in prisons - teaching men, women and children how to read, write and do sums - was first enshrined in law 200 years ago, in 1823. A project backed by Open Societal Challenges funding is to use insights into the history of prisons and prison education to equip policymakers, education practitioners and prison staff to re-make prison education for the 21st century context, improving both the content and ways in which education is delivered. The work will build on a growing body of evidence on the origins and making of prison education - the kinds of policies and practices that continue to shape and influence the nature of prison education now - and how past mistakes can be avoided. A website has become the centre of an active community sharing thinking and resources around prison histories and penal reform. A network of relationships and active collaboration has been built among prison reform organisations, prison education providers, individual prisons, and policymakers to facilitate knowledge exchange.

The ultimate aim of the project is to provide new higher-level learning opportunities which are accessible and free, delivering key skills and providing prisoners with a path towards formal qualifications recognised by employers. In partnership with Prisoners’ Education Trust, the OU has developed a free, Badged Open Course (BOC) for Open Learn: ‘Exploring the History of Prisoner Education’. Designed primarily for students in secure environments, the BOC also offers an opportunity for continuing professional development for those currently wrestling with the challenges of delivering education to prisoners, and learning materials which promote the value of prison education to the broader public.

A further phase of work is focusing on promotion of the BOC to maximise its impact in prisons; ensuring access to the BOC on online learning platforms; and working with Ofsted on their current campaign to improve education in prisons through the provision of bespoke resources on the history of prison education and the value of this knowledge in the present.