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February 2016 — Education In Prisons

Minutes of the meeting of the All-Party Penal Affairs Parliamentary Group held on 23 February 2016 at 5.00 pm in Committee Room 9


Dame Sally Coates, Chair, Review of Education in Prisons
Nina Champion, Head of Policy, Prisoners Education Trust
Nathan Motherwell, Apprenticeship Coordinator, RAPt  (Rehabilitation of Addicted Prisoners Trust) and a former prison learner

Lord Ramsbotham (in the chair)
Lord Beith
Lord Bradley
Lord Dear
Dominic Grieve QC MP
Lord Grocott
James Langstaff, Bishop for Prisons
Fiona Mactaggart MP
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

Lord Ramsbotham opened the meeting by welcoming everyone. He noted that this group had subsumed an old All Party Group on Prisoner Education, promising to hold at least one meeting on this topic a year.  Before the speakers, he was delighted to introduce Lady Corbett who would present the Robin Corbett Award for Prisoner Rehabilitation 2016.  Robin had been a distinguished chair of this group for many years.

Lady Corbett: Good evening. Last time I told you a little about the man behind the award. It was the fourth anniversary of his death last week and one of the things I miss most is all the laughs we had.  Like one very hot Sunday. We were canvassing and came to a large house with a long drive. I wanted to go home but Robin insisted that where there was life there was hope.

The lady opened the door, and said she was not on his political wave length as she was a member of the Worker’s Revolutionary Party, her husband was a Communist “but my son is flirting with the Labour Party.”  Then she added: “What I always say is that you only get power through the barrel of a gun”.

And then there were the raffles.  Every function we attended had a raffle and he told me if we won we had to hand back the prize. One raffle had about 100 prizes and I actually won the 98th – a set of small screwdrivers. I was about to hand it back when he muttered: “Keep them, I’m short of screwdrivers”.

The Robin Corbett Award this year attracted applications from a fifth of all prisons in the UK. I pay tribute and thank the Prison Reform Trust for their help and sustained support.   Juliet Lyon the Director and Peter Dawson her Deputy are both judges.  Mark Day through whose work prison rehabilitation has actually begun to feature in the media.  Past winners tell us how much this has helped their work. And thanks also go to Sam O’Sullivan whose hard work got us so many applications.

Thank you to the Worshipful Company of Weavers who sponsor the Award by donating money for administration costs. It means that every penny raised goes to the Award and we are so grateful for their generosity.
Michael Gove seems to be doing some good things.  I think I heard his voice in the recent speech by David Cameron on prison rehabilitation. And he visited Texas where they are actually closing prisons – yes Texas!  Over there they subscribe to this mantra:  “Prisons have the bad, the mad and the sad. We keep the bad, treat the mad and help the sad.”   I commend these words to all prison governors.

Before I come to the Awards this year I want to thank a few people because I forgot last time.  And I’m sorry if I sound like an Oscar winner.  Lord Ramsbotham, David, thank you for chairing our judging panel. As a former Inspector of Prisons your experience is invaluable.  Thank you too to Geoff Dobson and Eoin McLennan-Murray, the latter coming from Spain for a day, I also thank the prison governors of the winners, Graham Hawkins and Laura Sapwell, because without their support the projects could not happen.  Then I thank Ian Hewitt who designed the wonderful website He’s not here tonight but says he could do a mastermind about the Corbetts. And finally, thank you Rosemary Smith, who nagged me to do this website, who found the designer and had the poster designed and carries it in her car to bring to every event. She is getting married on Thursday and doesn’t even have to change her name as she is marrying David Smith.  We wish you well.

And now the Robin Corbett Award for Prisoner Rehabilitation 2016.
Robin was a respected chairman of the Home Affairs Committee and for 10 years until his death in 2012 he also chaired the All Party Parliamentary Penal Affairs Group, to which the Prison Reform Trust provides the secretariat.   We established the award in 2013 and it’s for outstanding rehabilitative work with prisoners by a small charity or community group, working in partnership with prison staff. The emphasis is on work that fosters personal responsibility and which calls on people in prison, and ex-offenders, to take responsibility to help themselves and to help others.

It’s always difficult choosing the winners and this year was especially difficult because we had so many applications and they all had merit. But after two long and intense judging sessions we finally got down to a short list.  Then we visited those to see if the application matched the reality and I am happy to say the winners did that and more.

I am delighted to announce that the winner of the Robin Corbett Award for Prisoner Rehabilitation 2016 is Switchback.   We were so impressed when we saw what they do. They use catering, combined with intensive mentoring, as a way to help prisoners into training and employment on release. The charity has worked with professional chefs including the food writer, broadcaster, and Switchback partner, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Prisoners prepare for release with a Switchback mentor in the last three months of their sentence. These mentors are full-time, paid and highly skilled.  This is how they work: within a week of release, trainees start work at one of Switchback’s partner training cafés, to develop skills in a working kitchen. Their mentor will be there to provide encouragement, challenging them to take control at a critical time. 45% of people reoffend within a year of release from prison in England and Wales—Switchback has a reoffending rate of 12%.  To assist them with the next stage, trainees are supported to gain work placements with employers, complete mock interviews and visits, to build their confidence and participate positively in society.

Here to pick up the cheque for £3,000, a certificate and a book I wrote about Robin is
Grahame Hawkings (Governor HMP Isis-Switchback)
Paul Baker (Deputy Director, London prisons)
Alice Dawnay (Director, Switchback) and two Trustees
Simon Eyers and Edward Mackaness

The next winner is highly commended: the St Giles Trust for their work at HMP Huntercombe to help foreign nationals held in prison with support and advice to prepare them for their release and reduce their risk of future offending.
Through the scheme, funded by The Bell Foundation, men are encouraged to support each other, whatever their culture, nationality, language or religion, building rapport and trust when often there is mistrust of authority. Helping to create a positive environment within the prison allows men to take advantage of the education and courses available, without the concerns or distractions that there would otherwise be. The scheme also helps peer advisors to achieve internationally recognised qualifications that have led to full-time employment on release. I spoke to all the peer advisors and was impressed at their confidence in handling any problem from their fellow prisoners. Maria McNicholl who isn’t able to be here tonight is the highly committed brains behind the peer advisor group.

Here to pick up the award are:
Laura Sapwell (Governor HMP Huntercombe – St Giles Trust)
Rob Owen and Pierro Izzolino (St Giles Trust)
And Diana Sutton (Bell Foundation – St Giles Trust)

I am delighted that this award is getting a higher profile, and with the website it will become better known. I hope you will forward to your contacts and ask them to do the same.  I end with the sentence which inspired the award – “All men die but some men live on”. In this award, Robin Corbett lives on and I am pleased and happy that he does. Thank you’.

Lord Ramsbotham thanked Lady Corbett most warmly and introduced the first of the three speakers.  Dame Sally Coates was recruited by Michael Gove to carry out a review of prison education. All members of the group would have been heartened by Mr Gove’s work in this role, and he hoped the different route he had chosen to take on Europe would not lead to any diminution of his work in prisons.

Dame Sally Coates thanked the meeting for its invitation.  She continued: ‘When Michael Gove asked me to do this, I was a complete novice about prisons.  I had been in one Young Offenders Institution but I had never visited an adult prison.  I think that probably most of the general public never go into one and have a very vague idea about what our prisons are like, probably formed by programmes on television about the American justice system. But I do know a lot about education.  I went into this review with completely fresh eyes, looking at the quality of education offered in our prisons.  I have been fortunate enough to have been given a great panel, all of whom are experts in the field – I work full time running twenty odd academies across the country – and they have really helped me to form some of the recommendations we are going to be pushing forward.

We have had an interim report, which the Prime Minister alluded to in his speech, and he has indicated that he is accepting our recommendations.  You will I hope understand that as our report isn’t published until the end of March, there is a limited amount that I can say tonight. We have completed taking most of the evidence but we are still thinking through our recommendations, and they are not final.  I will give you a hint of the things we are thinking of saying, however.  It would be good to hear people’s opinions tonight, so that they can help us to move towards the final stages of the report.

When I first started getting involved in prisons I read the Pentonville HMIP report. Having read that with horror I thought ‘education is the least of it’.  There is so much that needs to happen in prisons, and thinking about education seems like a minor thing.  Having now been into about 15 prisons myself – the committee have probably been into about 30 up and down the country, in a variety of types of the estate – I now realise that education is at the heart of it.  If we are really going to change things, then education has to be central to rehabilitation and to reform and to prisoners moving forward.  It is fundamental to success.

So education, skills and training should be at the heart of prison life.  It should be central, not only in the education block but also in the workshops, on the wings, in the gym.  It is fundamental to rehabilitation being a success. However for many of our prisoners, going into a classroom is going into somewhere they experienced failure in their lives.  They don’t want to go: they feel trapped.  So it is really important that we embed basic literacy and numeracy within workshops, and within other areas of the prison, so it doesn’t mean you have to move to the education block, sit in a confined space, and have a series of worksheets presented to you that do not inspire you to learn.  It is really important that it takes place throughout the prison.

The governor – and the PM alluded to this – should be accountable for the quality and delivery of that education.  At the moment that does not happen.  We have the OLASS providers, outside people contracted to provide education in prison.  Many governors feel very frustrated by their lack of ability to have any say in the education delivered.  If we want the governors to be accountable, they have to have the autonomy to contract for this for themselves, or employ their own teaching staff.  This accountability should form a very important part of the inspection regime of our prisons.

The workforce needs upskilling and we need to build their capacity.  We are looking into a Teach First type scheme, to recruit people into prisons.  This is not necessarily as teachers – it may well be as prison officers.  We are aware that there is already a graduate scheme into the Prison Service but at the moment it is not taking on a great number of people.  I think about twenty were recruited via that scheme last year.  We are looking at a Teach First scheme, where you attract Russell Group university type graduates into teaching and they come into challenging environments in their schools.  They sign up for two years; they see it as a fantastic way of learning leadership skills. They are then sponsored if they want to go out into the world of work, into banking, into law, or whatever they want to do with their lives.  But they have become teachers for two years, given something back to society, worked with some of the most challenging schools. We hope that some of them will stay in teaching and they have indeed had a huge impact on London schools and now across the country.

Why can’t we do something similar with prisons? What better area in which to learn leadership skills than working with some of the most disadvantaged and difficult people in the country:  people for whom education has been a failure; people who have addiction problems; people who have mental health problems.  So let’s try to attract some graduates into our prisons: sign them up for two years.  If they stay, that’s great.  If they choose to go off and do other kinds of work after two years, then let’s hope they will go into businesses and recruit offenders. They will have an understanding that  just because they have been in prison, people should not be cast off, and not have a place in society.

So educational provision needs to be far more flexible.  We hope by recommending autonomy for governors that this can happen.  The potential to progress beyond level two for example; recently I went into Belmarsh prison and saw someone with an English degree doing English level two. It’s absolutely ridiculous.  Obviously there are plenty of people in prison who haven’t got degrees, and who haven’t got these basic qualifications, and they need to do them.  But there is a significant minority of prisoners who have got those qualifications, and who should have the ability to go beyond them and further their education.  There are also significant numbers of people who have got long sentences, who just keep doing level one and level two.  I imagine it is extremely difficult for governors to motivate those people.  So we need to be more flexible in what we offer, to offer the arts as well as literacy and numeracy, and to offer hobbies, particularly for those serving long sentences.

Technology has a huge role in education outside prisons, and just as people I am sure raised their eyebrows in horror at the idea of telephones coming onto the wing at one time, we now need to think much more about technology coming into our prisons.  Just because a few people might be able to circumvent the system, we should not deny the opportunity to everybody else.  I and the committee feel very strongly that we must look much more closely at the place of technology in prisons.  It’s a great way of providing independent learning, and accessing distance courses.  It’s not right that prisons don’t have it.  Obviously there must be fire walls; we need to do everything possible to risk assess and ensure that people can’t abuse it.  But let’s do it and find a way to prevent that happening, rather than not do it at all.  We are definitely going to be recommending the further use of IT, and kick starting the virtual campus.  We do have the virtual campus in most of our prisons, but in most of the prisons I’ve been in (apart from Isis, where it is actually being used), it’s a room with dusty computers and the poor governor has complained that there is no broadband so he can’t use it.  It is quite ridiculous.  So we need to find a way of ensuring that the virtual campus actually works.

From induction to resettlement each prisoner should have a carefully structured education/sentence plan. Progress should be marked along this. On transition through the gate, prisoners should be given every chance not to reoffend through real links with colleges and employers. We have in fact talked about colleges in the prison as another campus, so there would be far more interchange between FE colleges and prisoners.

I want my recommendations to make a real difference.  This area is desperately in need of reform and I believe we have a Secretary of State who is ready to drive it through.  So I hope you have got a taste of some of the things we are thinking about, and it would be very good to hear your views’.

Lord Ramsbotham introduced the second speaker, Nina Champion, from the Prisoners Education Trust.  The Trust provided distance learning courses in prison, and had achieved some remarkable results.

Nina Champion:  ‘Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) funds around 2000 prisoners a year to do distance learning courses.  You may have read Eric Allison’s article in the Guardian today about the ‘Open Academy’ initiative at Swaleside Prison where they have a wing dedicated to learning, with its own library, IT suite, study space and team of peer mentors and advisors. Many of the learners involved in that initiative have been funded by PET.  Many are serving long sentences and distance learning provides them with a valuable progression route and something for other prisoners to aspire to.

Our charitable vision is that every prisoner can benefit from education, so as well as funding courses, we also work to influence policy and practice more broadly.  In 2012 we formed the Prisoner Learning Alliance (the PLA). We are delighted that the points raised by Dame Sally today chime closely with what the PLA have recommended: workforce development, progression beyond level 2, embedded learning, better use of technology, and increased Governor accountability and autonomy.

What I want to focus on today however is the big question: what is prison education for?
Previous education contracts have focused on outputs: hours of teaching or numbers of qualifications achieved. But these measures do not capture the impact education can have. The PLA has called for prison education to be more ‘outcome-focused’.

As Governors are given more autonomy, what outcomes should they be working towards?   The PLA ran focus groups with former prisoner learners and asked them to produce a collage depicting what education in prison really meant to them.   So what did they say? Knowledge, skills and employability were all mentioned and their benefits are well documented, so instead I’m going to focus on three benefits that are less often discussed.

The first outcome relates to health and wellbeing.  One of the collages, produced by a woman prisoner, relates how she felt when she arrived in prison.  ‘Pain, traumatised, guilty, on my own, shock, help me’.  These were some of the words used in her collage.
What education gave to people was something very different.  One learner said “my tutor praised me a lot. I’d never had praise before, it felt good, my tutor saved me and I turned my life around’.  One man admitted ‘I was angry, I had nothing to focus on, but with education I felt complete. With that piece of paper in my hand, the anger had gone.’ With violence, self-harm and suicides at record levels, the potential benefits of education on improved health and wellbeing shouldn’t be ignored.

The second benefit learners talked about was self-awareness and moving forward.   One learner said ‘What’s holding you back? You need to ask yourself that. For me it felt like the whole world was holding me back, but now I realise it was me.  Education helps you learn about yourself’.  It is important to understand that education can provide a space and medium for self-reflection and self-awareness, vital in making the decision to change and having the tools to sustain that change.    One man described his collage: ‘I’ve got a picture of a sky scraper, coz it was like that, what it felt like climbing up from the bottom. I learnt to set myself little goals.  I used to set unrealistic goals like winning the lottery by the time I was thirty. Now I can manage my goals. It’s given me confidence and belief to go for other things. It’s a strong power to have within myself really.’

The third category relates to the impact education can have on the environment and culture of a prison too. The Council of Europe recommendations state that ‘education helps to humanise prisons’.  Indeed, ‘kindness’ came up a number of times in relation to education staff and fellow learners.  As one learner said of his collage ‘the bottom part is dark and the top is light and colourful, this reflects my journey into education. Education helps you to live a colourful, varied and bright life’.   Another said ‘You raise aspiration by celebrating success. It has a ripple effect’.

As the Governor of Swaleside said in the Guardian article: ‘Although many inmates initially don’t want to engage in education, the enthusiasm of those peer skills advisers is starting to rub off’. This shows that education doesn’t just have an impact on the individual; it has the potential to impact the broader prison culture, and the wider social climate, and that in itself can be a significant outcome, particularly in increasing engagement amongst those who are harder to reach.

So why is this important?  As we have heard, we hope that governors will be getting more autonomy and accountability.  It is vital that, with that increased autonomy over budgets and curriculum, they have a clear appreciation of the wide ranging benefits education in prison can bring, as this will enable them to plan and deliver learning in a way that reinforces these benefits more effectively than the current system.  This will require policy makers to give governors sufficient flexibility, whilst at the same time holding them to account through focusing on outcome-related measures, rather than simply numbers of qualifications.

We look forward to Dame Sally’s final report and working with Parliamentarians to ensure the Prisons Bill helps her vision become a reality, so that every prisoner can benefit from education’.

Lord Ramsbotham introduce the third speaker, Nathan Motherwell from RAPt, who also had experience as a prisoner-learner.

Nathan Motherwell: ‘I will tell you a bit about my story. I am probably much like many of the people we have spoken about earlier. I came from a children’s home, left school without any qualifications, and spent around ten or eleven years in various prisons. I think I was in about fifteen different prisons, some of them five or six times. It is interesting to hear people talk today because I have had something to do with many of them.  St Giles Trust paid for one of my courses.  The Prisoners’ Education Trust started me on my journey, and paid for my first degree level course. I started with RAPt in prison which is where I got into recovery from my addiction.  So it is all relevant to me.

I don’t believe that anybody really wants to be in prison.  I was having this conversation with a friend of mine, and he said ‘I used to like going to jail’.  I realised that the reason he liked going to jail was because his life was so horrible outside that going to prison was a break from it.  I realised from my own experience that when you provide people with opportunities to do something different, they do take them.  I certainly experienced prison as being a very dark and cold environment.

Looking back on my journey there are a few people who stood out for me.  There was one lady from the Education Department in Chelmsford prison, an English teacher. I actually managed to do a level 3 qualification in English because they sent the wrong exam paper. She was kind enough to let us sit it and I actually got a Merit. She believed in me.  There was an Art teacher who was a really nice guy and showed a bit of faith in us.  Then there was a probation officer, and a lifer governor.  I was a two strike life sentence prisoner.  I had committed about 56 offences and a lot of them were violent. The lifer governor in one of the prisons really helped me and believed in me.  So there were a few people who showed me a bit of warmth and a bit of kindness and they really stood out, because prison was such a cold environment and such a difficult place to live.

I was thrown out of school at fourteen.  I never had a GCSE and I never had a job.  I had one job in a chicken factory but I was only there a month.  It was so disgusting. I worked on the docks for a month, but that was really hard work, and I am quite lazy by nature.  I never really achieved anything, and I never believed it was possible for me.  Since then, I started an Open University course and I finished my degree.  I‘ve got a diploma in criminology and a degree in sociology and criminology. I’ve done an NVQ 3 in Information Advice and Guidance, thanks to the St Giles Trust, and I’ve done an NVQ 4 in Health and Social Care, teacher training, counselling – loads of different stuff.

I have spent the last eight years working with people who are trying to rehabilitate themselves from their drug and alcohol addictions, working with people who are in jail.  One of the core things we do is ask people: ‘What would you like to do? If you could do anything you wanted, what would you like to be?’  People say things like: ‘I want to get my CSCS card so that I can work on a building site.’   And I reply: ‘But you are bright and you are motivated: you have the whole world in front of you and could do anything you like.’  Typically, people have such low self-worth, and such low opinions of what is possible for them.

My story is very common.  The majority of people in prison have experienced childhood trauma, have been through the care system, and have been in and out of jail for years and years. So they don’t have the experience of having lots of choices, and they don’t know that it is possible for them to do stuff. Even getting a plumbing qualification seems unachievable. I was asked to write a list of things beyond my wildest dreams when I first went into recovery, and I wrote down: ‘I want to pass my driving test. I want to finish my degree.’  I thought that even things like that were going to be impossible for me.

The people who stood out for me: I don’t believe there are enough of them.  At the moment I am Apprenticeship Coordinator for RAPt. What we do is we get apprenticeships for people who are in recovery and we get them into prisons, working with people there and helping them with their rehabilitation.  One of the biggest problems I face is actually getting people into the prisons.  Having not been in trouble myself for the past fifteen years, they wouldn’t let me have prison security clearance to go back in there and help other people.  I asked Michael Gove about it when he made a speech recently.  Peer mentoring, and having inspiring people who have been through the system themselves and know what it’s like to be in that situation, and can tell prisoners about what they have achieved: the value of that is immeasurable.  I have been having trouble getting clearance for one person who has been out of trouble for twenty years.  How long does it have to be?

I started studying in my cell, and I had no idea what could be possible for me. I set my goals quite low.  I started off studying French, because I knew a bit of that.  It turns out I could have done anything I wanted.  I could have gone on to study law – although the prison won’t let you study that, or psychology, in case you use it against them. I did pass my driving test, and got a motor bike and rode to Barcelona, and the Pyrenees.

As I said, I left school when I was 14 but I could read and write.  I have always been quite good at maths, and level 2 maths was useless to me.  I went to the education department and sat in the art class painting pictures.  There wasn’t anything else available that I could do.  The atmosphere within the prison ten years ago about taking courses was not encouraging.  A lot of the prison officers didn’t have degrees and said ‘Why are you getting funding to do this?’  Having the funding from the Prisoners’ Education Trust to start my degree was amazing.

So I think the two things I want to emphasis are the importance of having inspiring people, who have been through the system, and also the importance of having real and meaningful opportunities available.  People know they can’t go and get a job with key level 2 skills. They know that they need specific qualifications, and they want to go and do them. I have not been in trouble all that time, and I think I have saved the government quite a bit of money.  It has been quite a good investment.  Thank you’

Lord Ramsbotham thanked all the speakers and opened the floor to questions.

One questioner wanted to know how Nathan Motherwell had got his first job.

Nathan Motherwell replied that he had had the opportunity to volunteer, from his open prison. First he had volunteered in schools, and then he had volunteered with Turning Point for about eight months. That was what his job involved now: getting people into volunteering positions, so that they could build up a bit of experience and be trusted.

John Samuels, President of the Prisoners Education Trust, had come from the funeral of a teacher who had inspired him.  He firmly believed that education should be inspired and not imposed.

Rob Owen, CEO of the St Giles Trust, wondered whether Dame Sally Coates’ review would be ambitious enough.   For employers, the minimum level of qualification required was a level 3.  Did she foresee a day when offenders would be using tablets to help other prisoners to change their lives?

Dame Sally Coates responded that she had been struck by the level of talent among prisoners with no formal qualifications.  Her review would also emphasise the power of using peer mentors. She was aware how difficult it would be for some prisoners to get jobs, however many qualifications they had, especially those with violence on their records.  That was why it was so important to get employers on side, to give ex-prisoners a chance.

Baroness Howe wondered about how long it would take to get some of these changes delivered.  In particular, what would be done to educate existing prison governors, who might have a different mind-set.

Dame Sally Coates said that the best idea would be to roll the changes out slowly, to pilot them in prisons where the governors were already up for this level of autonomy, and the accountability that would come with it.  It would be important that the inspection regime should be set up to monitor this progress.

A prison teacher, who had been working in prison for ten years, said that when she had first started, it was possible to teach for level 3 and 4 qualifications.  All that had stopped with the OLASS 4 contracts.  She and her colleagues were now worried about what the OLASS 5 contracts would bring.

Dame Sally Coates said that unfortunately she could not comment, because these were things that she and her colleagues were looking at currently. It would be necessary to wait till the report was published at the end of March.  She had however met some great teachers in prisons, and had been inspired by those teaching with so few resources.

Lord Beith raised both the rate of churn amongst prisoners, with disruptive effects on their education, and also the level of education of the prison officers.

Dame Sally Coates responded that the churn of prisoners was a real difficulty.  She had come across examples of prisoners moved with only four hours left to do of a course which was not offered in their new prison.  She understood that prisoners sometimes had to be moved, but hoped that if governors were made more responsible for outcomes this might improve things. As to the issue of prison officers, she understood that Norway required all prison officers to be graduates. This would be something we could aspire to. Prison officers were not just security guards or bouncers, and many of them wanted better training too.

Nina Champion added that distance learning made the problems associated with a move a bit easier – although paperwork often got lost.  Additional use of technology would help with this too.  Education should definitely be a consideration when a prisoner move was being considered.

Lord Ramsbotham brought the meeting to a close, with regret.  He wanted to thank all three speakers most warmly.  They had given the meeting a great deal of food for thought, and he was certain they could help to sustain the momentum to ensure some of these changes were brought to fruition.