Ministers intend to invite tenders for education departments in jails next year, when responsibility for the service will be taken away from local education authorities.
Some of the contracts are likely to be won by existing education staff, but others might go to the voluntary sector or private companies. This competition could force down the cost of the service, pleasing the Treasury but leading to reductions in the number of hours spent by teachers with prisoners, the reform groups say.
Last night, Barry Sheerman, Labour's home affairs spokesman, said: 'There is accumulated expertise and tremendous skill, and we fear some of that will be lost because people will tender at a low cost.'
Other observers pointed to the 'success' of prison education in recent years. Teachers are often seen by inmates as trustworthy and helpful, a far cry from the hostility that dominates much of the prison service. Reform groups insist that education often provides practical skills which can improve slender chances of finding work once a sentence is served.
Adam Sampson, deputy director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: 'Here we have a service which without doubt is one of the few real successes of the prison system over the last five years. Given all the failures in the way our prisons are run, it seems preposterous that the Government has decided to attack prison education.'
Changes became inevitable when the Government moved to end local authorities' responsibility for higher education, a role that involved providing the service for jails. Ministers are keen to introduce the private sector into the prison service and see education as one of the areas that can be contracted out.
The Home Office says it is resolved to invite tenders for prison education but is consulting on 'how best it might be done'. However, observers expect the prison service to employ education officers who will be charged with contracting out the service. The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (Natfhe) has written to its members expressing concern that the plans could lead to the 'dismantling ' of prison education departments.
Its concern comes against a background of cuts in education for prisoners in south-east England. A survey by Natfhe of jails in Kent and the Isle of Wight found that all the institutions had witnessed reductions in teaching hours. The Home Office has been told that 59 teachers in Kent have been made redundant or told that their hours will be cut. However, the Government argues that the budget for prison education has been increased this year.
John Morgan, chair of Natfhe's South-east prisons branch, said: 'Prison education costs less than pounds 30m a year - peanuts by today's standards - and it works.
'It keeps the peace in prisons and people are rehabilitated when they are released.'Reuse content