E&S19: The question remains: why care about prison education?

16 July 2019

SkillHUBS is a three-year Erasmus + funded transnational project which aims to improve prison education across the EU through an innovative model for teaching and learning. This model is specifically designed for the prison environment and population, with a focus on short, informal and vocationally embedded courses as part of a 360° programme of personalised learning and skills development. The objective is to better prepare offenders for life and work ‘through the gate’ with precisely the behaviours and skills capabilities required by local employers. The programme and model function on multiple levels with the essence bound to a drive for improvements in prison learner wellbeing, social capital and human capital as well as knowledge, skills and employability as the principle outcomes.

This year’s Employment and Skills Convention’s theme of “Beyond Brexit – a future that works for all” can be understood as a call for everyone to have the opportunity to gain the skills, behaviours and capacities that employers need, and to build the employment and careers that they want. So why should employers take notice of prison education?

Let’s start with the prison population size – it’s around 88,000 at present. Imagine 88,000 trained and skilled prospective employees or entrepreneurs coming the job market. This at a time when employers are reporting increasing difficulties in sourcing the right talents and skills sets, likely to worsen in a post-Brexit Britain.

Very well, you might say, more skilled people entering the job market sounds like a good idea. The question remains though: why care about prison education?

Now imagine a chain of inter-connected and inter-dependent circumstances resident in the prison system – a bit like a row of upright dominos. The end circumstance is the one which should concern us all – the cost of re-offending by ex-offenders, often within the first year of release, currently estimated as £15B per annum in the UK. That number is, of course, only the financial price.

Moving up the chain, we come to a claim supported by considerable evidence – that ex-offenders who find gainful employment are less likely to re-offend (re-offending is not entirely diminished but significant correlations are found between employment and a reduction in recidivism). Take a step further back up the chain and you come to the obvious statement that to get a job you need the skills and behaviours that employers want. Another step and what you find is that the prison education provision is generally limited and inconsistent, with a near total absence of digital technologies.

The present status of prison education is not necessarily due to a lack of skilled and committed educators. On the contrary, prison educators are generally among the most dedicated, passionate and inspiring of educators. The stem of the problem has multiple roots, all deeply entrenched.

One of them is, for many reasons, an inadequacy in meeting the education needs – specifically – of adult learners as individuals, and of population which tends to be far more statistically burdened with special learning needs, disaffection with education, low levels of skills and education, physical and social disabilities than present in the general population. Hence the need for personalised programmes tailored to individual needs. But, at present, a substantial majority of ex-offenders pass ‘through the gate’ having learned no employment skills or gained education qualifications.  What is the solution? SkillHUBS.

As a key partner in the three year transnational Erasmus + funded SkillHUBS project, Learning and Work Institute (L&W) had the task of leading on the design and development of the SkillHUBS model, supported by project partners Centre for Education & Culture Trebnje (CIK) and the European Association for Education of Adults (EAEA). The unique feature of the model lies in its integration of three complimentary practices: a methodology and resources for engaging with local employers about the skills they want and need, a framework for teaching and learning that is specifically designed to meet the challenges of the prison environment and the prison learner population, and a template for a Learner Record of individual achievement. Complimenting and supporting the programme is a large catalogue of existing, high quality learning content. The whole SkillHUBS model is designed and built on decades or research and experience.

This is not about teaching prison learners standalone topics such as literacy and numeracy.  Rather it is concerned with teaching those skills within the context of everyday work and life. Our focus is skills, behaviours and attitudes. Learners are empowered to take control over their own learning, personal development and that of others. The over all objective is to effect a transformation in prison education, the learners themselves, and the prison institutional culture. In effect, the culture of the learning organisation.

The summer of 2019 sees the roll-out of the SkillHUBS model to a number of prisons in four different European countries. The longer-term aim is to have this model adopted throughout every prison institution in Europe.  The fact is that offender populations represent a workforce in waiting – given the right skills, behaviours and attitudes. Equipped with much greater chances of gaining employment through the gate, the evidence is that re-offending rates – and consequently cost to society – will tumble.

Dr Lesley Crane PhD MA Bsc

Find out more about SkillHUBS here.