Ron Dearing: Education should be the prisoner's key to freedom

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Late July and the chance to get away from it all! That thought brought home the reality of prison. Of course, the wrong-doer has to get his comeuppance. And some people clearly need to be kept inside for the safety of the rest of us.

Late July and the chance to get away from it all! That thought brought home the reality of prison. Of course, the wrong-doer has to get his comeuppance. And some people clearly need to be kept inside for the safety of the rest of us.

But I find myself increasingly aware of the futility of a policy based primarily on punishment. We cannot afford it! The odds are above evens that the released prisoner will be convicted of another crime within two years. For a young male, the odds rise to over 70 per cent. The average cost of the proceedings in a crown court are around £30,000 and the cost of holding someone in prison averages £37,000 a year in running and capital costs.

But it does not have to be like this. Let's look at prevention. Signs of possible trouble ahead are there to be seen in schools when there is persistent truancy or exclusion. The potential criminal is 10 times as likely to have been a persistent truant and 20 times as likely to have been excluded as the general population. We owe it to these young people and to society to get to the bottom of their problems while they are still at school. Of course, that will cost money, but look at the cost of crime, tens of billions a year.

It also means new thinking about the school curriculum for these youngsters. If we are going to keep them in school, there must be the flexibility within the curriculum to respond to them and the latest Education Bill opens new doors for that in many schools.

For many, that chance has passed and they are in prison. A major part of the reason for that, and also for the probability that they will re-offend, is they lack educational equipment to get a job and hold on to it.

Around two thirds of prisoners do not have the numeracy and English of an average 11-year-old. So what are we doing in the prisons to deal with that, the more especially as we know those who have taken part in education in prison are three times less likely to be reconvicted.

For education in the basics, positive progress is being made. The money for it is now ring-fenced so that it cannot be snitched by prison governors for other exigencies. Spending per prisoner has been pushed up to an average of £800 a year. Computer-based learning from Learn Direct is being piloted in five prisons and is proving popular.

But all this is still small beer in relation to the potential benefit, and there is the question of motivation for those prisoners who remember education with nothing but distaste. (They might well use a more expressive vocabulary).

Thanks to the triumph Estelle Morris has notched up in securing an extra one per cent of national income for education, the money is there for a breakthrough, not just in the basics of literacy and numeracy, but in life skills, family relationships and the arts. Events more relevant would be more vocational training – for example, in the construction trades where there are big skills shortages.

At present, funding for vocational training is not ring-fenced. It needs to be. The cut of 50 per cent in recent years in the provision for training in the construction trades reported by the Government's Social Exclusion Unit seems nothing short of perverse.

As to motivation of prisoners, the Government has taken to its heart the concept of "something for something". Is it within the realms of the practical to adopt that for prisoners, with a contract offering remission of sentence for achievement in skills and education?

Whatever the basis for getting prisoners' commitment to education, the potential return through reduced reoffending rates by people who can hold down a decent job is compelling. And if remission of sentence could be part of the package, each month of earned remission would fund two years' training at double the present rate of spending. Education and training need to go to the top end of the prisons agenda.

There are lives to be remade, with a financial dividend for society thrown in if we can turn our thinking on our purposes in prisons on its head.

Lord Dearing has been an adviser to successive governments on education issues

education@independent.co.uk

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