Why are some prisons cutting classroom budgets when education has been shown to prevent re-offending? Claire Sanders looks at what the chief inspector of prisons has to say
When General Sir David Ramsbotham published his fourth annual report as Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons for England and Wales last month, it contained the sort of language that would probably shut down a university.
Sir David, frequently referred to by those in the prison service and in press cuttings as "Rambo", wrote: "It could be said that 1998-99 was a very bad year for the prison service, marked by extreme examples of unacceptable practice in prisons."
The report is peppered with phrases such as "appalling conditions", "disgraceful obstructions", "wilful neglect" and "unacceptable in any civilised society".
His report received some press coverage, largely because it coincided with proposals to merge the prison and probation inspectorates - something to which Sir David is strongly opposed. But what went largely unnoticed was the section devoted to education.
His conclusion is: "Due to inadequate needs analysis of prisoners, continuous disruption of planned programmes in prisons, the narrow curriculum on offer and shortage of resources, the quantity of provision remains poor."
In the same month, 40 organisations joined together to launch a manifesto for penal reform. The Penal Affairs Consortium's manifesto contained 70 recommendations, with those on education echoing Sir David's concerns.
"The prison rules should be modified to reinforce the educational component of sentence plans, and national standards should be drawn up for the provision of educational opportunities so that governors can work to a common set of expectations," it says.
"Each offender's need for education should be assessed on induction into the prison system and arrangements made to satisfy these on a continuous basis even if there have to be transfers between prison establishments."
One of Sir David's key complaints is the lack of consistency in funding per prisoner. His annual report says that too many budgetary decisions are delegated to the level of senior managers and prison governors. He chose the areas of education and work to highlight inconsistencies.
"Both the government and the director general have emphasised in public that 'education, education, education' is at the heart of their agendas, and mention has been made of recent unprecedented investment in prisoner education following the grant of comprehensive spending review funding," he states.
"But consistency of resource allocation is essential if prison education departments are to be able to reach all those who need education."
He lists the disparities (see right) and concludes: "Small wonder that education provision for prisoners in different prisons is so much of a lottery. I submit that this will only be resolved by a needs analysis of what each type of prison could and should provide, followed by a systematic re-allocation of resources based on top-down direction of provision."
Not only does Sir David's report highlight funding inconsistency, it also highlights the year-on-year cuts in the education budget to individual prisons.
In October last year, Paul Boateng, minister for prisons, in answer to a parliamentary question, gave figures on the amount per head of population of each prison that was available for education courses. The minister listed the figures for the years from 1995-96 onwards, at 1998-99 prices. Sir David says these show "that hardly any prisons had more money per head in 1998-99 than they had in 1995-96, before the dramatic cuts imposed under the previous government in 1996-97, which have not yet been made good." He says: "All the research shows that a lack of education is the single factor most likely to lead to re-offending."
Prison governors contract mainly with further education colleges, but also with some universities, to provide education. The Open University has 400 prisoners enrolled on its courses, and last year Ruskin College, Oxford, set up a preparation for a higher education course in eight maximum-security prisons.
The study skills course will be used as a basis for entry to higher education at Ruskin or other institutions. A number of other universities also enrol prisoners on distance-learning courses.
"I'd like to see universities do more," says Sir David. "Universities have a lot to contribute to bright prisoners, especially those who face a long time in prison."
Since April 1998, the prison inspectorate has used inspectors from inspection agency Ofsted and inspectors from the Further Education Funding Council, instead of its own inspectors. During 1999, the inspectorate has, for the first time, also used inspectors from the Training Standards Council to look at non-vocational qualifications and City and Guilds awards.
"It means we can all speak with one voice on prison education," says Sir David. The reports from Ofsted and the TSC were included in Sir David's assessment of prison education. "The fact that these bodies are involved in the inspections means that the information goes to the Home Office as well as the Department for Education and Employment," he says. "This should improve continuation of provision by helping people carry on with their education once they have left prison."
Sir David acknowledges that in response to the government's drive to improve basic education in prisons, more prisoners are receiving accreditation in basic literacy and numeracy. But he warns that the stress on reaching these targets is resulting in cutbacks in further education.
"The narrowing of the prison service core curriculum has had a detrimental effect on the programmes offered by many education providers," he says. "Many have cut out creative subjects, such as art and music to meet requirements for basic education."
This is also a concern of the Prisoners' Education Trust, a charity set up ten years ago to reduce re-offending by working with prison education departments.
It offers grants to prisoners wishing to study distance-learning courses. Prisoners need to be endorsed by the education department before they can apply for a grant, and the prison has to pay a minimum of 10 per cent towards the cost of the courses.
In 1999, the trust worked in 60 prisons, an increase of 36 per cent on 1998. It has seen a 50 per cent increase in applications since.
In its annual report, chairwoman Elizabeth Andrew writes: "We remain concerned that the concentration of funding on the basic education programme has resulted in lower levels of general education provision in many education departments. In 1998-99, 71 per cent of prisons cut education hours, for the third year running the average number of hours of education fell."
The consortium also included a recommendation on basic education in its manifesto. "Development of literacy and numeracy should be a priority, but there should also be a range of provision for offenders who already have these skills," it says.
A spokesman for the prison service said: "The priority for the next three years is to expand and focus on basic skills. The target is to reduce by 15 per cent the proportion of prisoners discharged from their sentence who are level one or below for literacy and numeracy by 2002.
"Prisoners are currently excluded from 94 per cent of jobs due to low levels of literacy and numeracy. More able prisoners can prepare themselves for higher education."
Sir David criticises the way contracts are organised between individual colleges and prisons, arguing that "bidding contractors, and prisons, would benefit from better analysis and direction of what is appropriate for them to provide in each type of prison".
He says that as education contractors employ relatively small numbers of full-time staff, the majority being part-timers who receive "sessional" pay, they have no time to contribute to administration. "This illustrates a lack of recognition of the pressures on non-teaching time, and the need to resource accreditation planning and other essential administration," he says.
But there are positive elements to Sir David's report. "Whatever the conditions or circumstances in which education departments in prison operate, we have been struck by the enthusiasm and commitment of teaching staff, and the high quality of the work that is being conducted," he says.
FROM CRIME TO POETRY, TEACHING AND WELDING
There are many good education programmes in prisons. The prisoners below had their education funded by the Prisoners' Education Trust.
Beverley Burrow, wrote the following poem, "Time": Time is like an albatross, first it's there and then it's lost.
Time is like new laden snow, seize the moment before it melts and goes.
Time is like a tidal ebb, or trying to touch a spider's web.
Time is like a breath of air it comes and is gone as if it was never there.
Time is also a prison term, when you are sent away and made to learn.
So let no one take your time away, Live life as you should, or you'll be made to pay.
If Ms Burrow gets parole, she will leave the open prison Askham Grange at the end of this year.
On arrival at Askham Grange, she suffered a nervous breakdown.
She sees the education she has undertaken as part of her salvation.
"Without these courses I would not have got anywhere," she says. "It has given me back my confidence - my parents can't believe what I have achieved."
She has not only taken creative writing courses run by the National Extension College, but used this as a springboard to a number of advanced information technology courses.
Her studies were funded by the Prisoners' Education Trust.
Carol Burke, education manager at Askham Grange, says: "I use money from the PET and other charities to fund the further and higher education of prisoners. There are many people in prison whose needs go beyond basic skills and it is vital that we do not neglect them."
The prison recently staged a musical and then took it on tour to other women's prisons. "Again that was funded by a charity, the Irene Taylor Trust," says Ms Burke.
Ms Burke is employed by City College Manchester to run the education courses at the prison. The college is commended in Sir David's report and runs a number of education programmes in other prisons. "I regularly meet up with people working in other prisons," says Ms Burke. "Through the college I have quite a network of support."
John Green (not his real name) and Douglas Tindal have both studied during their time at Leyhill prison.
Mr Green is now out of prison and working as a teacher - as a result of the qualifications he took at Leyhill.
"I took a City and Guilds teaching certificate - the equivalent to part one of a PGCE - at Leyhill," he says. "I also took a separate City and Guilds certificate, which qualified me for teaching those with learning difficulties."
Mr Green studied on day release at the City of Bristol College, where he now teaches computer and IT skills. He also plans to teach numeracy and literacy skills to those excluded from school. "I feel that the time I spent in jail will help me get results from these young people, where others might find it more difficult," he says.
His experience of education in prison was extremely positive. "The opportunities are there if you want to take them," he says.
Mr Tindal has taken a range of courses, from computer studies to welding. He has found the attitude of staff supportive and has been surprised at the quality of education available. "When I first started my sentence, I thought prison education couldn't be much good," he says. "But I've changed my mind."
What has brought him peace of mind is the thought that his qualifications will help him support his family. "I've done my homework and I know there is a demand for welders," he says.
Graham Botterill is team leader in education at Leyhill. "We have not had any cuts in the education budget at Leyhill," he says. He is employed by Filton College in north Bristol to run the education programme in the prison. Filton College is contracted to provide education in three prisons.
PRISON SPENDING FOR EDUCATION COURSES 1998-99
Disparity between lowest and highest amount available to each type of prison, per prisoner per year, for education courses.
* HMP Wakefield Pounds 614
* HMP Whitemoor Pounds 847 (HMP Belmarsh,virtually a largeLondon localPounds 545) Category Band C training prisons:
* HMP Featherstone Pounds 304
* HMP Blantyre House Pounds 1,340 Category D prisons:
* HMP Kirkham Pounds 400n HMP MortonHall Pounds 989 Local prisons:
* HMP Birmingham Pounds 189
* HMP Hull Pounds 755 Women'sprisons:n HMP Drake Hall Pounds 599
* HMP Cookham Wood Pounds 835
* HMP and YOIBulwood Hall Pounds 1,716 Young Offenders' Institutions
* HMYOI Brinsford Pounds 482
* HMYOI Werrington Pounds 1,598
* HMYOI Thorn Cross, including High IntensityTraining Wing Pounds 2,357