Two important Bills were promised in the Queen’s Speech earlier this month and are coming very soon:  the Higher Education and Research Bill, and the Prisons and Courts Bill.  And important background papers on education in both the HE and prison sectors have been published very recently.

First, the higher education White Paper – Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice .

This reflects the government’s declared determination to drive up standards and the status of teaching. No bad thing, but this endless emphasis on creating a competitive market and choice for students doesn’t sound very innovative to me. Nor is it obvious how it encourages social mobility… We have had a competitive market in HE for all the years I have worked in it.  Whether or not the Teaching Excellence Framework lives up to the Government’s expectations remains to be seen.  Widening participation in HE requires decent funding for poorer students and much better encouragement and support for them throughout their school careers.

Then there was Unlocking Potential: A review of education in prison by Dame Sally Coates on behalf of the Ministry of Justice.

This tells us that 42% of adult prisoners report having been permanently excluded from school. What a statistic. Dame Sally perfectly sensibly wants to put education at the heart of the prison regime: “education in prison should give individuals the skills they need to unlock their potential, gain employment, and become assets to their communities. It is one of the pillars of effective rehabilitation. Education should build social capital and improve the well-being of prisoners during their sentences”.  One of the most challenging parts is what is often called  ‘through the gate’ support – helping individuals continue to progress through education, training and employment through different prisons and then on release. The big idea of the moment is to give Prison Governors autonomy – but how and why would you hold them to account for the educational progress of all prisoners?  Perhaps Masters of Cambridge Colleges should be held to account for the exam results of their students?

Dame Sally wants a new ‘people’ culture in prisons to support leadership, to build routes to attract new talent into working in prison, and to ensure professional development for all staff.  How shocking that this is currently lacking. Of course the prison regime should be personalised and concerned with raising aspiration. Of course it should enable more prisoners to move into sustained employment and/or continue education on release. The idea is a “prisoner learning journey”, with a dynamic Personal Learning Plan.  Let’s see how it works out.  The evidence of recent years in prison has been fewer resources, and more fragmented services.  Reducing the prison population by half would help.

In an article published last week, Peter Dawson, one-time prison governor and now Deputy Director of the Prison Reform Trust wrote: “The condition and performance of your local prison should be as important to you as that of your local hospital or school. The people it holds have the capacity to make a significant impact on your quality of life”.

I suspect he’s right: until everyone worries more about what goes on in prisons, nothing much is likely to change.

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

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