Robert Halfon: Our chaotic prison education system is crying out for an overhaul

18 May

Robert Halfon MP is Chair of the Education Select Committee, a former Minister for Skills, and former Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party.

For the majority of offenders, prison must be a place where the skin of an old life is shed, and a new one begins.

Education – from a practical apprenticeship to a masters’ degree – must act as a kind of restorative justice that gives prisoners the chance to build the confidence, skills, and knowledge they need to change their lives; to start again and get good employment when they finish their sentence.

For the past eighteen months, the Education Committee, which I chair, has been conducting an inquiry into the state of education in prisons.

One of the key recurring themes we heard from all our witnesses was that education is one of the most important factors in reducing re-offending. Indeed, research from the Ministry of Justice shows that those who had participated in education whilst in prison were 7.5 per cent less likely to reoffend within twelve months of release.

However, evidence also shows that only 17 per cent of adult prisoners were actually in employment.

Six years after the publication of the Coates Review into prison education in 2016, our Committee found that the ambition set out in this landmark review had not been pursued or met.

Almost two thirds of prison inspections conducted by Ofsted show poor quality management of the education, skills and work provision, with nine of thirty-two inspected institutions achieving a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ rating compared with eight out of ten providers for further education in the wider community.

At the same time, the number of prisoners participating in education qualifications has plummeted. In 2018, the number of prisoners participating in a course equivalent to AS-levels or above showed a 90 per cent decrease compared to the 2010/2011 academic year.

Prison education is often paid at a lower rate than unskilled work, acting as a disincentive to engage with education.

Perhaps most worryingly of all, data shows that over 30 per cent of offenders have a learning difficulty or learning challenges but there are only 25 qualified Special Education Needs Co-ordinators (SENCos) across all public prisons, equating to just one SENCo for every four prisons.

And to cap it all off, the physical and digital infrastructure of prisons is in a dire state, with the majority of prisons without the cabling or hardware to support internet access, or a digital device which would enable prisoners to access remote learning through courses on offer by the Open University, for example.

Now, I’m not saying that every offender should be given a state of the art MacBook Pro, or the ability to freely surf the internet. But as the Fourth Industrial Revolution approaches, prisoners will need the digital and technical skills not only to support their ability to learn, but also to acquire the skills necessary for their future employment opportunities.

As our new report makes clear, the arguments for placing education at the heart of the prison system is a no-brainer.

I welcome the commitments the Government have made to date, for example in supporting my campaign to allow offenders to undertake formal apprenticeships from the prison (previously this was not possible). I tabled an amendment to the Skills Act urging for this to be done and am hugely grateful to both Dominic Raab and Nadhim Zahawi for pledging to make this happen.

But it must go further and support a root-and-branch overhaul of the chaotic prison education system as it currently stands.

First, there must be a culture shift in prisons which embeds education at the heart of the system. The Government should appoint a Deputy Governor for Learning in each prison, with a clear and meaningful education and skills plan related to employment and training which would be monitored by Ofsted.

Second, there must be a universal and rigorous assessment process and screening for every prisoner upon entry to identify people’s educational abilities and any SEND or additional learning needs, as well as their academic achievements. Funding should be properly allocated to allow for one SENCo per prison.

Third, individual education passports should be introduced which contain a record of each prisoner’s learning and educational needs. This would facilitate better transfer of studies as prisoners move from prison to prison. Offenders’ ongoing education, and whether their studies can be sustained, should also be taken into account when deciding whether to move prison learners.

Stronger incentivisation for learning should also be considered, such as making pay received for education equal to the amounts received for work, as long as offenders can demonstrate progress within their studies.

Fourth, businesses could be encouraged through financial incentives, such as through the apprenticeship levy, to overcome their reservations and employ former prisoners. The Government must also commit to publishing a clear timetable to set out the roll-out of employment hubs across the prison estate and the establishment of Employment Advisers within the prison system.

Finally, prisoners should be provided with effective digital equipment to enable them to conduct proper online learning.

As Dame Sally Coates said, “Let there be no doubt. Education should be at the heart of the prison system.”

I completely agree. The founding principal of the prison estate must not just be about justice, but to prevent re-offending too, with education acting as the keystone to achieving this ambition.

I urge the Government to carefully consider the steps set out in our Committee’s report which would reframe learning in the prison system and ensure every prisoner is able to overcome the challenges of their past and climb the ladder of opportunity into their future.

Nadhim Zahawi MP: Skills, schools and families are my focus as I carry forward our proud legacy of school reform

1 Apr

Nadhim Zahawi MP is the Secretary of State for Education.

It is a little over six months since Boris Johnson gave me the honour the Secretary of State for Education: the best job in Westminster.

Having made two significant announcements this week, now felt like a good time to take stock and share with ConHome readers the journey that has brought us to this point, both for me and for generations of heroic, reforming Conservative ministers that have held this office before me, and on whose legacy this Government is building.

For me personally, this job begins my third stint in the Department. First, David Cameron made me the apprenticeship tsar – there were lots of tsars in those days – and then Theresa May appointed me as her Children and Families Minister. I have drawn on these experiences in my role, but I have benefited enormously, too, from generations of Conservative educational reformers.

As far back as the Second World War, Rab Butler was bringing in universal secondary education and incorporating church-led schools into the system. These church schools are now leading the charge to help complete the journey to see all schools in a strong family of schools, and I’m grateful to the Church of England’s support for this key concept of interdependence in providing the best outcomes for our children.

When I walk past the wall of photographs of my predecessors as Education Secretary each morning, a certain Margaret Thatcher is among the faces who peer out. It is an honour to follow in her footsteps.

When I first experienced the British school system as an 11-year-old immigrant without a word of English, my mum would remind me that a grocer’s daughter from Grantham had just been elected as Prime Minister and that nothing was impossible in this country. Our reforms will make the limitless ambition Thatcher had for Britain a reality for more and more young people.

Our current educational system still bears many of the hallmarks of the work done by one of her key supporters, that brilliant conservative thinker, Keith Joseph. High-quality qualifications (like the GCSEs he introduced), support for world-leading university research and a focus on bringing parents along on their children’s journey to knowledge have been huge inspirations for me and my brilliant team of ministers at the department.

Since we Conservatives returned to Government in 2010, a series of reforms, spearheaded by Michael Gove and Nick Gibb, have led to an explosion of improvements across the school system and proved one of the crowning achievements of the Coalition. These reforms, introducing free schools, and driving academisation, or autonomy from local government to you and me, has been transformational.

The facts speak for themselves: 86 per cent of schools are now rated as Good or Outstanding, versus 68 per cent in 2010. English primary school students are now better at reading than they have ever been, and the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers narrowed by 13 per cent at age 11 and nine per cent at age 16, between 2011 and 2019, before the pandemic struck. We Conservatives should be proud.

And Gavin Williamson, through a laser-like focus on the skills agenda, on T-levels and on quality apprenticeships, helped rebuild that parity of esteem and are turning us once again into a nation that makes and builds things.

The Prime Minister’s commitment to delivering for pupils and parents is total, and we are working in lockstep to deliver the reform that is needed for the next generation to thrive.

And if you had told me back when I was the apprenticeship tsar that we would have a Prime Minister who would put the money behind a transformative policy such as the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, enabling people to retrain and up-skill throughout their life, I would have bitten your hand off!

So, you can see: taking up a mantle of this pedigree is an inspiring, and daunting, one. Truly, I am standing on the shoulder of giants.

My mission as Education Secretary is a simple one: to give every child the outstanding education that so many children are now receiving. It really is about levelling up the standards and quality of our Multi-Academy Trust system right across England. Put simply, excellence should be the expectation, not the exception.

That’s what this week’s announcements – our SEND Review and Schools White Paper – are about. They are about delivering on our promise to level up so that education standards in Blackpool and Bolton, are just as high as they are in Bromley and Barking.

At the moment, only around two thirds of children leave primary school with the expected standard in reading, writing and maths. Our ambition is to hit at least 90 per cent before the decade is out. I have also made a pledge, from me and this Government, to parents across the country; wherever a child falls behind in English or maths, their school will intervene swiftly to deliver the targeted support that is needed to get that child back on track.

And the SEND Review seeks to build a more inclusive system for the most vulnerable children in our country and eliminate the postcode lottery that still exists in some parts of the country, so that no young person in one street, one town, one city – no matter their need – gets a lower standard of education to their friend in the next.

Skills, schools and families are my focus. Building on our announcements this week on skills and schools, tomorrow you will see plans that this Government is delivering support families across this country and help them access crucial services when they need it most.

Family is the most important thing in the world to all of us; we all want to look after the next generation, and to live up to the potential and promise of our predecessors. I have huge shoes to fill, but our children deserve the very best, and our Conservative predecessors have made possible to achieve the best education system in the world.

It is time to finish the job and unleash the unlimited potential of this country.

Roger Gough: Levelling up. We need to move from country deals to county relationships.

1 Dec

Cllr Roger Gough is the Leader of Kent County Council

Levelling up, seen initially as a nebulous, impressionistic concept, is starting to take shape. In his speech in July, the Prime Minister emphasised the importance of counties as well as traditional urban and industrial areas, in achieving it. Michael Gove heads a new levelling up department. The White Paper is reportedly imminent.

The Guardian is not the typical place for a Conservative government’s foundational text, but Neil O’Brien’s October article established four key elements: strong local leadership; growth in the private sector and in living standards; extending opportunity and good public services; and restoring local pride.

Why did the Prime Minister put such a focus on counties? In part, because shire counties, even in the south east, are not homogeneously leafy and prosperous. The ‘core cities’ focus of much development and regeneration policy in recent decades has, whatever the other arguments in its favour, neglected smaller towns, rural and coastal areas.

In addition, counties can operate at a big, strategic scale while carrying a strong sense of identity and accountability. In some cases, though not all, they share boundaries with other major public services. It is a strong combination.

All of this is true in spades for us in Kent. With a peninsular geography, a history stretching back to a Saxon kingdom, its Garden of England identity and a population bigger than eleven US states, it is a big and distinctive place. People take pride in living here. Historic Kent – made up mostly of the Kent County Council area, but also Medway unitary authority – is coterminous with the emerging NHS Integrated Care System as well as police and fire.

And Kent has its own profound needs for levelling up. On most indicators, the county comes close to the national average. However, this average masks a gulf between centres of prosperity (many, though not all of them in the London hinterland) and deep deprivation, especially in a number of coastal communities. By levelling up living standards and life chances within Kent, we can not only provide a huge economic and social boost to local towns and communities; given the size and scale of the county, we can make a significant contribution to levelling up nationally.

So far, the small number of county deals that may be announced at the time of the White Paper have reportedly been quite individual and bespoke (full disclosure – Kent is not one of them, though like most counties we have been exploring the implications of levelling up and county deals with government). The White Paper should, however, establish more common parameters, even if there remain (as there should) elements that reflect distinct local needs and identity.

The building blocks of devolution deals seen in mayoral combined authorities provide a starting point: transport, business support and economic development, adult education. I would extend the latter much further into the wider area of skills; not only is this an area in which Kent has significant gaps to close, but the damaging effects of nationally driven policies and funding streams in undermining local collaboration and generating mismatched skills to the needs of local business are well documented. Locally, we have built strong partnerships that can deliver.

On transport, we need to deliver the shift from counties just being a highways authority to becoming a full transport authority. It is neither fair nor sensible that metropolitan areas are able to fully integrate transport when the need for better integration is starker in more rural areas, where a lack of affordable transport between towns and communities limits connectivity and economic opportunity, and sustains dependency on car usage for quality of life. For both transport and economic development, there is a need to switch to devolved funding settlements over a number of years rather than the current merry-go-round of bidding systems.

Delivery of infrastructure is also vital, even if a little separate from levelling up strictly defined. For counties (and especially a county such as Kent, which has had exceptionally high rates of housing growth) the detachment of planning and infrastructure over the last decade, and the funding and distribution of developer contributions have not worked.

Hopefully, the rethink of housing projections by the new Secretary of State will ease some of the pressure on south-eastern counties; but that remains to be seen, and where development does take place, the need to deliver properly funded infrastructure first, remains a clear articulated demand from our residents. The logical conclusion from all this is the need, not only for changes to the developer contribution regime, but for a more strategic approach to spatial planning.

Delivering on net zero and on climate change resilience and adaptation presents distinctive challenges in predominantly rural areas, ranging from the viability of public transport to vulnerability to flooding. Kent and Medway have developed robust and far-reaching plans, but a comprehensive approach to the issue will have to draw together transport, strategic planning, skills, economic development and more.

Finally, county deals should be the catalyst for a new strategic partnership between national government and local leadership, so that when a matter of local importance also has national significance, the two can address the issue together systematically.

For Kent, that is our border with the continent and the massive volume of trade, as well as passenger traffic that passes through it and across the Short Straits. This has been and remains a point of vulnerability for both the county and the country, seen most sharply (and for some Kent communities, traumatically) when the French authorities closed the border in the days before Christmas 2020.

National and local authorities worked together remarkably effectively to prepare for the end of Brexit transition. Now, however, there is no one deadline to work to, but a series of continuing changes at the border, and an ever-present vulnerability to disruption with some of the special measures and capacity available a year ago no longer in place.

That effective local-national operational partnership to deal with a specific event needs to take on a standing, strategic form. This can then develop the measures (in road and border infrastructure, lorry holding capacity and much else) to reduce the vulnerability of both Kent and the UK to shocks and disruptions in the Short Straits.

None of this simply makes asks of national government; it presents challenges for counties too, above all in terms of governance and capacity.

The first is sometimes taken as code for a directly elected or mayoral model. But it need not be so; some of the arguments (stability, convening power, accountability) seem to be set up against a straw man of weakly-led councils, perhaps under No Overall Control. The reality is that much council leadership is at least as stable and durable as national leadership (and much more so than typical ministerial tenure) and a large strategic authority can convene very effectively.

Less talked about is the question of capacity; that councils are able to discharge a stronger strategic role when they face huge budget and managerial pressures from demand-led services such as adult social care and children’s services. There is no simple answer to this, but councils have to make a conscious choice to commit money, time and thought to this when all those resources will feel more than spoken for already.

The corollary is that county deals have to be a relationship with the whole of government, not simply with individual departments; it is only through this that central government will be able to understand and support the choices that councils have to make.