Reform of prison education vital for ex-offenders and society at large

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Improvements to education for people in jail will have long-lasting benefits. Stock image - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Last week on the Education Select Committee we published our report on prison education, entitled: “Not just another brick in the wall: why prisoners need an education to climb the ladder of opportunity”.

I’ve been a member of the Education Committee since shortly after my election as an MP and we have published many reports during that time. In my view, this current report was perhaps the most consequential and the most impressive.

All in all, we spent over a year gathering evidence for the report, including prison visits and hearing from experts, and I very much hope that those most involved with prison education will be heartened by the end product.

I’ve been an MP long enough now to know that sometimes the most significant and meaningful developments and issues don’t always make the headlines. This was the case last week - despite a press statement being issued by the committee, there was no coverage at all of the report in the national media.

I knew very little about prison education before this inquiry got underway but have since developed a strong interest in it, and plan to continue even now the inquiry has been completed. As an issue, prison education is of profound significance to society. If we can get it right and learn from the points highlighted in this report then hopefully there can be many societal benefits.

The status quo is nowhere near good enough. Only nine of the 32 prisons recently inspected were classed as either good or outstanding for prison education. Meaning that well over half are judged as being not up to scratch.

Tom Hunt, MP for Ipswich

Tom Hunt, MP for Ipswich - Credit: House of Commons

Good quality prison education is crucial to give offenders opportunities to turn their lives around. The vast majority of offenders, when they enter prison, have had abysmal experiences in the education system. Many have very low levels of literacy and numeracy and around a third have learning disabilities, and most likely didn’t receive the support they needed.

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If we expect offenders to have half a chance of turning their lives around once they leave the prison system, then clearly it’s vital we give them the opportunity to get the education and the skills they need to succeed on the outside.

I for one don’t think it’s merely a coincidence that the education offered at so many prisons is judged as not being up to scratch and the rate of reoffending is so depressingly high.

Yes, prison must be tough. It must be a punishment. It must serve as a deterrent. However, we must look to do something constructive with offenders during their sentence to enable ex-prisoners to become productive members of society when they have served their time.

I also think that once offenders have served their time and become ex-offenders, as far as possible, they should be given a clean slate. This isn’t the case at the moment. I’ve had a number of constituents who have contacted me, as ex-offenders desperate to make a fresh start and make a positive contribution to society, but are prevented from doing so due to potential employers discriminating against them because of their record. This makes it very difficult for ex-offenders who want to turn over a new leaf, and sadly leads to many becoming demoralised, and drifting back into criminality. This contributes to high reoffending rates.

I’m pleased that the Education Committee report recommends positive incentives for employers to give ex-offenders a chance such as national insurance holidays for the first year of employment. It also recommends incentives to encourage offenders to properly engage in education.

In our committee sessions, I did on occasion suggest that we could have gone even further. If we’re going to give ex-offenders a completely clean slate when they leave prison, I do think there is an argument to say that there should be no requirement for a record, provided the sentence is spent. Of course, this would not be considered where the job in question is of a sensitive nature. I know many would feel this move to be quite radical and many other members weren’t comfortable with it, but I do think it’s something we should be prepared to think about if things don’t improve over the next few years.

Bearing in mind my vocal stance on all issues relating to special educational needs, readers won’t be surprised to know that when it came to this report I was very keen to ensure that we had strong recommendations in this area.

As it stands, approximately 30% of offenders have some kind of learning disability – this is far higher than the approximate level within society generally. I personally think the true proportion is far higher than 30%, most likely close to 50%.

Screening of prisoners for special educational needs and disabilities has been a relatively recent development. This is a step forward, but implementation of the screening has been inconsistent across the country, and I personally don’t think it's intensive enough.

For this reason, we’ve recommended all offenders see an educational psychologist on entry to the prison system.

Once we know that a certain individual has learning disabilities, it’s vital we wrap an educational support package around them. As it stands there are only enough SEND specialists for one between every four prisons. This isn’t good enough - which is why the report has recommended one SEND specialist (SENCO) per prison. This is something I have been suggesting to the committee, and I am pleased to see it in the report.

We know that huge numbers of young people with learning disabilities do not get the support they need in school. This is sadly leading to many individuals who have huge potential being alienated from the education system and drifting towards a world of crime, which only too often can lead to prison.

Hopefully, this report will act as a lightning rod not just to sort out the provision of education in our prisons, but also to continue to make dramatic improvements to the support we provide to all people with learning disabilities.

As I’ve said before, those with learning disabilities often have great potential and are unconventional and creative thinkers. However, if we fail them in the education system, many end up falling through the cracks and into the criminal justice system. This is a stain on our society