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Accountability in prison education: a need for better-designed measures as well as more transparency

Nikki Stickland

Prison education has been high on the Government’s reform agenda recently, with Michael Gove bringing a focus on the area to the Ministry of Justice from the Department for Education and instigating an independent review led by Dame Sally Coates, a top head-teacher. The prime minister addressed the importance of a fresh approach to prison education in a February 2016 speech on prison reform, saying that the system is “not producing anything like the results we need”[1]. Last month CentreForum published our own analysis on the prison education system, which provides further evidence of decline or stagnation since 2009. From a ‘scorecard’ of three main measures: access and participation; learning outcomes; and quality, standards and results were in the main declining or failing to improve.

Only 14 per cent spent of prisoners reported spending the recommended 10+ hours out of cell in 2014/15, little changed from 13 per cent in 2008/9. Moreover, despite commitments to improving basic literacy and numeracy, achievement of below Level 2 accredited qualifications in English and Maths has fallen by 10 per cent. Finally, there has been a worrying decline in quality according to inspections by Ofsted, with the percentage of prisons rated Inadequate/Requires Improvement increasing by nearly a half from 2011/12 to 2014/15. The picture was not wholly without positives, as there has been a welcome rise in the numbers of Full Level 2 outcomes (equivalent to five GCSEs at grades A* to C) achieved by prisoners, but Level 3 outcomes have fallen dramatically, and there is little flexibility for prisoners to progress further in education.[2]

one of the main findings of this review of evidence was simply the paucity and inadequacy of data-based monitoring in this area

These findings came from detailed analysis of a variety of data sources, including learner participation and outcomes from the Skills Funding Agency, survey data from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, and reports from Ofsted and Independent Monitoring Boards. However, one of the main findings of this review of evidence was simply the paucity and inadequacy of data-based monitoring in this area, with many data sources limited in sample size, or collected for some areas and prisons and not others.

This makes it difficult to gain a comprehensive picture of how the system is performing, or even what basic entitlements, such as amounts and types of education, are being delivered on the ground. With a move to greater autonomy for prison governors over their education budgets as Cameron pledged in his speech, this will need to be underpinned by better and more consistent data collected by each prison on how well they are delivering against rehabilitation outcomes. CentreForum’s research recommends a carefully designed data set of a minimum number of these outcomes to be collected for each prison. These should include destinations on release, i.e. into education, training and employment, status after six months, as well educational progress in custody. Educational progress should be measured for prisoners both by achievements, but also by how far they are able to meet individually-set progress targets reflecting any particular challenges and barriers to learning.

At a national level monitoring is necessary to hold prison governors to account for performance, but measures need to be carefully judged to avoid incentivising a focus on the most able prisoners. Comparisons between prisons should only be made with caution, cognisant of the level of variation between prison populations and the influence of local factors. Nevertheless, greater recording of the needs and experiences of individual prisoners with regards to education will help policy-makers to gain a greater understanding of the level and prevalence of particular needs within the prison population, for instance, learning difficulties or particular gaps in learning. As an example, the new mandatory assessments in literacy and numeracy for new prison entrants introduced in 2014 have already provided greater detail about prisoners’ basic skills[3]. This should be combined with greater data-sharing between local providers and national departments: CentreForum recommends at a minimum renewed guidance on data-sharing in this area and the possible introduction of a Key Performance Indicator based around data-sharing. Together this will help education be better integrated into the overall rehabilitation of prisoners, and assist the system in responding to changing needs and priorities.


[1] Speech on prison reform to Policy Exchange, Rt Hon David Cameron MP, 8th February 2016, URL:

[2] Please see CentreForum’s report, ‘Transforming rehabilitation? Prison education: Analysis and options’, Nikki Stickland, March 2016. URL:

[3] B. Creese, ‘An assessment of the English and maths skills levels of prisoners in England’, Institute of Education, November 2015