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April 06, 2006

What's wrong with prison education? Prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham explains how government targets limit the scope of education in prison

Posted by Emily Kingham

Emily Kingham - writer-in-residence at a Category B local prison - explains how government targets are limiting the scope of education in prison. This is bad news both for prisoners and for society at large - offender education can be one of the most effective tools in stopping ex-prisoners from re-offending.

I've been running creative-writing workshops again. Yes, that is what I am here for. I'd almost forgotten, what with all the forms and numbers and meetings and acronyms. But before I rejoice in my prisoners' creativity I must make a political point.

Teachers are under almost intolerable pressure in the prison service. Targets and statistics are what the Home Office wants from them. What is clear to education departments across the land is that "soft targets" are more effective with this group of difficult, demanding but ultimately rewarding learners. This means writing plays and stories, producing magazines, radio programmes and theatrical productions. The creativity involved channels frustrated energy, the teamwork develops trust, the use of language and exploration of ideas help with literacy and broadening horizons. Being treated as equals give offenders positive role models to which to aspire. But teachers are bogged down in basic-skills KPTs (key performance targets). This means that people like me come into prisons to teach writing, sound-editing, etc.; creative projects with practical skills that can be used in the workplace and even lead to qualifications. But these are short-term projects brought in by charitable NGOs.

The teachers employed by local education colleges do not get the chance to treat prisoners as individuals (remember the TV programme from the 1960s? well, it's like that). As a result, they are frustrated in their aims, and their students are short-changed. Neither are they given the same status as Further Education college lecturers, although they have the same postgraduate qualifications. As a result, they are not awarded the same pay. This is not the real issue, however. If they strike on 10th May which they are threatening to do it is because they want their status, as well as that of their learners', to be recognised as equal to that of students and lecturers in adult education.

Prison education staff are dealing with complex, highly intelligent individuals. These individuals need individual attention. They are not used to receiving "positive attention". When they do, they flower like spring daffodils. It's incredibly moving. But more of that later.

Facts first: the government has failed to implement the recommendations of the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee. The Committee published its findings one year ago, finding that the state of prison education provision was "unacceptable". Research conducted by the Forum for Prison Education has indicated that the government's strategy has amounted to ignoring the recommendations for reform.

In their report the committee made 55 recommendations. Amongst these, was the request:

that education should be understood in "broader terms than just improving the employability of the prisoner", and should therefore benefit from a broader curriculum.
This request has not been met. Instead a Green Paper (Reducing Reoffending Through Skills and Employment), published on 15th December 2005, indicates a focus solely upon skills for work. This is despite the fact that the Forum have stated that no perceptible progress has been made towards researching the true skills requirements of offenders. More than that, the government committee stated that around 60% of all prison education was judged to be "inadequate" by the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI).

The Forum also makes a point I made in my last piece:

Prisoners are still punished by lower pay for taking part in education than for work.
They conclude:
It doesn't take a green paper to sort that out.
Hear bloody hear.

Of the 55 recommendations made last year, 26 have had no action at all taken on them, with only four being met. We all know that the government would close a failing school or college if improvements took this long. I can only ask: why is it acceptable in prisons?

Offender education is one of the most effective tools in the fight against re-offending. Teachers are doing this work for law and order. And they're doing it at cut-price rates. That the government should be keen on reducing the crime rate and the number of people in prisons whilst at the same time remaining intransigent on offender education is a nonsense, and exposes their criminal lack of (wait for it) "joined-up thinking".

Furthermore, I am moved to report that every piece of writing that is presented to me by an offender is a fascinating and moving document. Some of my writers have an implicit understanding of form and structure and deliver a narrative that displays their innate story-telling skills. Some reveal an eye for detail that reveals their affirmation of life and beauty. Some can't write and don't try to but their eloquently fragmented pieces speak of their pain, joy, hope and despair.

You cannot bullshit a prisoner and they do not bullshit you. When a man has everything taken away from him, he is left with himself. And that is what I see. No jargon, no broken promises. They want to learn and if they can't, they say so. They're honest, and consistently so.

Emily Kingham is the pseudonym of a writer-in-residence at a Category B prison in South East England. She is a writer and journalist. To read Emily Kingham's previous columns on prison life see Notes from a Prison.

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Yes, those inmates who are in prison should be reeducated so they will be able to get some job or start some business in order to become law abiding citizens. So your program provides them with new opportunities. I guess that generally funding for this program should increase.

Posted by: Anthony at April 7, 2006 12:10 PM

Given the relative shortage of jobs for playwrites and short story writers and the dearth of competent plumbers and electricians, would it not make more sense to teach the latter skills to prisoners instead of the former?

Posted by: s masty at April 10, 2006 10:14 AM

Rehabilitation only works when it concentrates on the individual prisoner, not on grand schemes or targets. I summarized the American research on this in a monograph for Civitas (PDF here) three years ago. One might suggest that the target setters are treating the prisoners as means to the ends of meeting quotas, not as ends in themselves.

Posted by: Iain Murray at April 10, 2006 01:35 PM

One problem with teaching prisoners skills such as plumbing and electricity is, would one want a former violent offender doing a job in one's home? Skills for a multi-person workplace would be much more appropriate. However, there is one place where they would be most suitable:

You cannot bullshit a prisoner and they do not bullshit you.

so what about letting a few loose in the House of Commons or Whitehall? Even better, combine this with training as electricians and plumbers, so they could re-wire the brains of crazy politicians and flush away the [sewage] that so many of them talk.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at April 10, 2006 09:49 PM
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