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Give prisoners laptops so they can continue education inside, say MPs

Prisoners should be given access to laptops so they can continue their education in jail (Nick Ansell/PA)
Prisoners should be given access to laptops so they can continue their education in jail (Nick Ansell/PA)

Prisoners who are studying should be given laptops or other devices to ensure they can complete their education, according to a report from the Commons’ Education Committee.

Inmates should also have access to online learning resources, it says, although it raises concerns about prisoners having “unfettered” access to the internet.

“If security can be assured and access can be monitored and tightly restricted to educational purposes, we recommend that the Ministry of Justice provide in-cell laptops, such as Chromebooks, to prisoners only when undertaking education,” it says.

The report notes that in December 2020, Ofsted rated just nine out of 32 institutions as “good” for their prison education, with none rated “outstanding”.

It added that data showed more than 30% of prisoners had a learning disability or learning challenges, and that this figure was likely to be an underestimate, given that prisons rely on inmates identifying their own needs.

There are just 25 special educational needs and disabilities coordinators (Senco) across the prison estate, equating to about one Senco for every four prisons.

It also recommends that the Ministry of Justice introduces a consistent assessment for every prisoner upon entry to prison from an educational psychologist, “or at the very least a more intensive form of screening”.

The report adds that there needs to be a “whole prison approach” to prisoners with learning difficulties, as a lack of information sharing between departments prevents inmates from accessing the help they need.

The report says that the Government should legislate so that prisons can access inmates’ records through the National Pupil Database, so they can see prisoners’ prior attainment and learning needs.

And it recommends that digital education passports be introduced for prisoners, so that inmates transferred to other prisons at short notice can continue their education as quickly as possible, and do not become disheartened through delays in passing on information about their studies.

“It is unacceptable that the effort made by prisoners in improving themselves can be so easily discarded,” the report says.

The report says that links between prisons and employers should be improved, given that the reoffending rate for adult prisoners released from custody is 42%, at an estimated yearly cost of £15 billion.

Businesses should be encouraged to employ former prisoners through incentives such as national insurance holidays during the first year of employing former inmates, the report says.

A deputy governor of learning should be responsible for educational outcomes for prisoners in each institution, and pay for education must be equal to that for work to incentivise prisoners to continue studying, the report says.

It adds that the current student loan regulations do not allow prisoners with more than six years left before their earliest release date to access student loans.

“This regulation disproportionately affects people who might benefit most from higher-level study. The Government must remove the “six-year rule” so that prisoners on long sentences can apply for higher education courses earlier in their sentence,” it argues.

The report says that prison education is in a “poor state” following long-term decline. In the year 2017-18, the number of prisoners participating in a course equivalent to AS-levels or above showed a 90% decrease compared to the 2010/11 academic year.

The education committee said that the report “highlights the cracks in a clunky, chaotic, disjointed system which does not value education as the key to rehabilitation”.

Robert Halfon, chair of the committee, said: “For the majority of offenders, prison must be a place where an old life ends, and a new one begins.

“The key to starting again is education. Education – from a practical apprenticeship to a masters’ degree – increases employability, one of the most important factors in reducing reoffending.”

Coronavirus – Thu Feb 25, 2021
Conservative MP Robert Halfon said prison should be a place where a new life begins for prisoners (House of Commons/PA)

He added that six years’ after the review of prison education by Dame Sally Coates, “prison education is in a chaotic place”.

“Shambolic transfer of records, no assessment for educational needs and the lack of access to modern learning tools add up to paint a dismal picture.

“The Government has shown its commitment to enabling ex-prisoners to climb the ladder of opportunity by extending the apprenticeship scheme to prisoners, and I thank Nadhim Zahawi and Dominic Raab for recognising how important this is.

“However, there must be a root-and-branch overhaul that extends throughout prison culture.”

Peter Cox, managing director of prison education provider Novus, said: “This welcome report by the Education Committee highlights how prison education enables prisoners to develop the skills and experience they need to change their lives, and the vital role it can play in reducing the £15 billion-a-year cost of reoffending to taxpayers.

“However it also exposes the host of structural, bureaucratic, financial and cultural factors which currently prevent prison education from achieving the biggest possible impact.

“The report builds on the Prisons Strategy White Paper in setting out practical steps to overcome these obstacles. At present, 57% of adult prisoners have literacy levels below those expected of an 11-year-old.

“The report rightly spells out the need for greater investment in prison education if we are to help more prisoners to escape the cycle of reoffending.”