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Great Expectations: The role of education in penal reform

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Yet again, policymakers are looking to draw upon the transformative power of education to solve some of Britain’s most entrenched social problems, this time in prisons. While the 2016-17 Queen’s Speech promised a complete overhaul of prison education as central to a penal reform project focused on the rehabilitation of offenders, the simultaneous publication of Dame Sally Coates’s Review of prison education, all of the recommendations of which have been accepted by the Ministry of Justice, put flesh on the bones of how exactly this will be achieved.

Both the Queen’s Speech and the Coates Review cited two key sets statistics which underpin the current penal reform proposals. The first concerns high rates of recidivism, namely that 46% of all prisoners will reoffend within a year of release. The second draws attention to the educational deficiencies of the prison population: 47% of prisoners have no formal qualifications on entry to prison, 42% were expelled or permanently excluded from school, and 13% report never having had a job. The argument of policymakers is clear: educate prisoners, ensuring they leave prison with qualifications and hence employment opportunities, and rates of reoffending will drop.

The Coates Review, when read in detail, suggests it is not quite that simple. Sally Coates argues that the transformative potential of prison education is twofold: it is not only about skills delivery, qualifications, and employability, but also about improving the well-being of prisoners, even helping prisoners adjust to or cope with their life inside.  She suggests that the definition of prisoner education should be broadened.  Rather than simply classes in basic literacy skills, prisoners should be offered vocational training, creative arts, music and sports activities, and courses leading to qualifications up to degree level. Additionally, systems should be put in place to support the continuation of learning after release from prison.

Even so, the Coates Review, like many commissions and policy papers on prison education which have gone before it, is based on a largely uncritical acceptance of sets of statistics on the educational attainments of prisoners. These statistics are ultimately legacies from the Victorian period, when the assessment of prisoner literacy and educational experiences was first initiated. The categories into which prisoners are organised based on their levels of education have changed with the advent of mass literacy: the dividing line is no longer established between those who can read and write and those who cannot, but between those whose literate and numerate skills are above the level of an eleven year old, and those whose skills are not. Yet there is much that Victorian penal reformers would recognise in the compilation and analysis of the data today.

From the 1830s until today, statisticians, reformers, prison officials, and sociologists have worked hard to establish a link between poor education and the commission of crime. The relationship is far from straightforward; it is most certainly not causal. For both Victorians and present day policy makers, it is not easy to isolate the effects of educational deficiencies from other potential causes and symptoms, especially poverty. Over the nineteenth century, a number of commentators argued that the levels of education found amongst prisoners were not deficient, but were broadly representative of the communities from which the prisoners came. Their cautionary remarks have been echoed by some present-day studies often overlooked in debates about policy .(See, for example, remarks of the National Literacy Trust on this debate: http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/assets/0000/0422/Literacy_changes_lives__prisons.pdf  

Despite this, improved prisoner education has once again been offered as a panacea. As Coates argues, ‘if education is the engine of social mobility, it is also the engine of prisoner rehabilitation’. Can education live up to these great expectations?

Specific individuals will be made responsible for ensuring it does. The prison reform bill and Coates propose the devolution of greater autonomy to prison governors. They will be trusted to ‘run their jail in the way they see fit’, with the freedom to choose and even design education programmes which they believe are best suited to their prison populations. Their decisions will be informed by intimate knowledge of the needs of every prisoner under their care through the use of Personal Learning Plans.

The project is both ambitious and exciting. It promises to relieve senior prison officers and educationalists from the shackles of a largely restrictive and homogenous prison education policy primarily based on addressing the lowest common denominator. But the nineteenth-century experience of experimentalism in prison education reminds us of some of the potential pitfalls and problems.

From the 1820s, when the first legislation was enacted requiring prison officers to instruct their inmates in reading and writing, until the early 1880s when a national prison education scheme was imposed in all prisons, governors and chaplains of local prisons were afforded total freedom in the design and delivery of education. Such experimentalism led to a lack of parity in the experiences of prisoners in different prisons. As specific programmes were championed by individuals, staff turnover created instability in the long term delivery of prison education. Perennial conflict over how to measure the success of the different prison education programmes made both policymakers and practitioners weary. Comparisons between institutions pursuing fundamentally different programmes proved almost impossible. Proofs of reformation post-release were sought, but even these were subject to intense critique especially by those with vested interests. Reoffending statistics offered a direct measure, but ultimately a blunt tool. By the time they were available, programmes had often already been radically changed. Moreover, the statistics became divorced from context: reoffending did not always signal the failure of education to reform or improve inmates’ lives post-release; offenders commit or recommit crime for many different reasons.

Education can transform lives, though not always in ways that are expected or measurable, and often not single-handedly. The danger in placing education at the heart of a new rehabilitative penal regime is that if it fails to deliver the goals set, its whole existence comes under threat. The importance of prison education is so much more than addressing reoffending statistics. It is about humanity: on the one hand, it helps the counter the damaging effects of the deprivation of liberty (which, by the way, is a severe punishment); on the other hand, it is good for personal well-being and development, and prisoners like all members of society should be presented with opportunities throughout their lives to develop their skills and challenge their minds. What happened to a belief in education for education’s sake?

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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