Thank you very much for having me here this morning.
Given the review I am leading, it feels appropriate to start with a word about stereotyping.
There is a certain stereotype – about prisons and prison learning – that we ought to put on the table.
The suggestion is that prisons are:
- risk averse
- slow to pick up on trends in the education world
- detached from the realities of the job market
- more focussed on warehousing prisoners than helping them turn their lives around.
Stereotypes, of course, always need challenging.
For those of you wishing to do this I have a recommendation.
Visit HMP Brixton and you will find, for the first time in this country, inmates being taught to build scaffolding towers within the prison walls.
Now you do not need to be an expert in the history of prison breaks to understand that these are not the actions of a prison governor who cares only about managing risk!
Speak to Giles Mason, the Governor at Brixton, and you start to confound some other parts of the stereotype too.
The reason for the scaffolding course is that the prison is working back from conversations with employers. There are construction companies with serious skills shortages. Those companies also have contractual obligations to employ ex-offenders when they are delivering government projects. So HMP Brixton has invested in a state-of-the art centre to equip prisoners with the skills they need to take up those construction jobs when they leave prison.
Each day prisoners are there learning dry lining or painting and decorating, alongside those carefully supervised, scaffolding classes.
Elsewhere in the prison you can sit down for a meal at The Clink restaurant, staffed and run by the inmates at Brixton, from the waiters serving tables to the chefs in the kitchen.
The Clink is currently rated on Trip Advisor as the 4th best place to eat in London.
That’s 20 places higher than Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant, in case you are wondering.
Walk through the kitchens that serve The Clink restaurant and you see people focussed on highly skilled work. Each one is learning a trade that will give him a future when he walks through the prison gates at the end of his sentence.
They didn’t enter the prison able to cook roast red pepper polenta, courgette tagliatelle or herb-crusted pork loin steak, but you will find all those things on their summer menu.
And as with the painting, decorating and scaffolding, the training in The Clink restaurant is connected to the outside world.
Prisoners go on day release to broaden their experience and bolster their CVs.
Chains like Carluccio’s have formed partnerships with the prison, providing opportunities for offenders to put their new skills into practice.
You only need to spend a few minutes talking to the people involved with The Clink to realise the difference that it makes.
Optimism about the future
So we know that excellent prison education is perfectly possible and absolutely necessary.
The challenge for the government is to make sure that we don’t just have pockets of excellence, but rather you can find it wherever you go.
There are challenges and pressures, of course, there always are. Resources are tight. Facilities are inadequate. Many prisoners themselves are disaffected from formal education.
But we should be optimistic about the future.
Charlie Taylor is about to deliver a review of the youth justice system that has the right principle at its heart. As he puts it:
In order that education is truly placed at the heart of youth custody, we must re-conceive youth prisons as schools… Rather than seeking to import education into youth prisons, we should create schools for young offenders in which we overlay the necessary security arrangements.
He understands the need for these institutions to have a strong educational ethos, driven by leaders with the space to lead and the expectation to deliver.
Likewise, Sally Coates has just published an excellent report on prison learning for the adult population.
Those are two reviews which I hope have the ear of Ministers and other colleagues in Parliament.
I aim to do the same with the review that I am leading, on the disproportionate representation of ethnic minorities in our criminal justice system.
As many of you here will be aware, ethnic minorities currently make up over a quarter of prisoners – compared to 14% of the wider population of England and Wales.
The situation is actually worse when you look at the youth population. Over 40% of young people in custody come from minority backgrounds. So we have a big problem in this country.
My review looks at the role of the criminal justice system in addressing it.
That means scrutinising whether people get a fair deal as they progress from a police charge through the courts.
But it also means looking at whether our prisons and the probation system are doing everything they can to help offenders from ethnic minority backgrounds break the cycle.
When half of all crime is committed by people with previous convictions, this is of fundamental importance.
Of course, rehabilitation starts with the individual’s willingness to change. Without this you have nothing.
But it is only possible when you give people a stake in something. Something worth holding onto.
At a minimum this means a steady job – ideally one that pays enough to get by.
And in today’s job market, that means having the necessary skills.
This brings us to the question of whether education in the criminal justice system is doing all it can to reduce the disproportionate representation of minorities in the future.
The worrying answer to this question is that no one really knows.
As Sally Coates highlighted in her report, there is no comparable data on attainment that can be broken down by race or ethnic group.
And what is true of ethnicity is also true of language.
As our hosts’ recent report ‘A Prison within a Prison’ pointed out, there is currently no reliable information on what proportion of prison inmates have English as a second language, let alone what progress they are making through prison education.
So, at a national level, we can’t say whether education is helping prevent prisons become a revolving door for ethnic minorities, or for those with English as a second language.
That is something we simply wouldn’t tolerate in other parts of the education system.
I won’t prejudge my final report today, but I struggle to see why it should be the case with prison education.
Of course we don’t want prisons and other public services loaded down with excessive form-filling and bureaucracy.
But these are public services.
For them to be accountable to the public we need to know more about what is going on.
We do, however, have some evidence to piece together a picture, not least due to the work of organisations like our hosts today.
We know that offenders from minority backgrounds tend to enter prison with higher qualifications than the white prisoner population.
We also know that around a quarter of those taking courses in prisons are from ethnic minority backgrounds, which reflects the prison population as a whole.
But we have to be careful about the conclusions we draw from these statistics.
Participation does not necessarily mean achievement.
In fact, research by the Prison Education Trust suggests that those from minority backgrounds are less likely to achieve qualifications in prison than their white counterparts, despite being more highly qualified to begin with.
It is also the case that broad categories like ‘white’ or ‘ethnic minority’ can obscure real problems for specific groups.
On visits to several prisons, for example, I have heard from Gypsies and Travellers about the particular challenges that they face in this area.
Many dropped out of school very early – and find the prospect of formal education daunting, even if the right provision is there for them.
Published figures show that just 12% of school-age Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils achieve five or more good GCSEs, including English and Mathematics.
That compares with compared with 58% of all children.
Prisons need to be much more sensitive to the needs of groups like this, understanding the psychological barriers to taking part in prison education as well as what it means to start learning from this baseline.
The only way we can address this issue is if prisoners are properly assessed when they enter prison, so that we know what each individual needs – from English language learning to basic literacy and numeracy.
Only then can we can track what each actually achieves from the start of their sentence to the end – and hold the system to account for what it delivers.
As Sally Coates points out, this assessment is still a variable process from prison to prison – and it need not be.
It is also increasingly clear to me that this initial assessment must include consideration of learning difficulties and disabilities.
The current system, under which prisoners must self-refer for an assessment on learning difficulties, is inadequate.
I have a strong suspicion that, with this system of self-referrals, a disproportionate number of black offenders are slipping through the net, with learning needs going undiagnosed.
I hope to present fresh evidence on this particular issue in my final report.
Connecting with employers
So we need a much more personalised approach for each prisoner, connected to a much more rigorous accountability system that keeps track of precisely what different groups of prisoners go on to achieve.
But, returning to HMP Brixton, we also need to make sure that learning opportunities are connected to real world jobs, with real world employers.
This is what makes learning tangible and useful to individuals. It is what gives it currency in the job market.
One way to achieve this is to bring employers into prisons.
I have seen this work wonderfully in parts of Scandinavia and I hope we will see more of it here as prisons acquire new freedom to innovate.
But whilst employers can come to prisoners, we also need prisoners going out to employers to gain experience before they complete their sentences.
It is part of the process of prisoners readying themselves for release, as well as filling CVs with something other than time inside.
But this brings me to another area of concern.
I have had representations – not just from prisoners but from others in the criminal justice system – that decision-making on re-categorisation and day release can be opaque and potentially discriminatory.
Prisoners themselves complain that they are often not clear how to achieve re-categorisation, so that they can become eligible for these kinds of work experience opportunities.
Many do not understand why some of their fellow inmates have become eligible and why they have not.
Some argue that the process is simply arbitrary, coming down to who is liked and who is not.
Others suspect the difference is down to the colour of their skin – that perceptions of ‘riskiness’ are bound up in racial stereotypes, whether conscious or unconscious.
This is an area that needs careful analysis and I do not intend to leap to conclusions.
But I do intend to scrutinise this issue closely.
Because the truth is that even the best education is not enough on its own.
Ordinary job seekers benefit from work experience.
Those engaged in prison learning need it still more, to prove to themselves – as well as others – that they are ready to take on the responsibility of a steady job.
So these vital decisions about re-categorisation and day release have to be evidence-based and they have to be transparent.
We must be sure that discrimination is neither present, nor seen to be present.
My review reports in spring next year.
That gives me the opportunity to dig further into the detail of the issues I have raised today.
But it also means I have time to take representation on issues that colleagues here and elsewhere believe are important and deserve more attention.
The public call for evidence for the review has just closed. We have had responses from over 300 organisations and individuals, representing a huge spectrum of issues and perspectives.
But I remain in listening mode for now, open to your views, keen to read your research and hear your ideas.
So can I thank our hosts again for inviting me here today, and say that I look forward to continuing the conversation.