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Prison education potential is being squandered by constant changing of teaching contracts, warns report

25 February 2014

Prisoners are not getting the help they need to turn their lives around because of a failing prison education system with no continuity, warns a report released today.

The report, from UCU and Institute of Education (IoE), says the power of prison educators to help offenders turn their lives around is being 'squandered' due to constant retendering for teaching contracts.

Prison Educators: Professionalism Against the Odds paints a picture of a highly motivated, well-educated and experienced prison education workforce who report that their working environment is being made less and less conducive to their core purpose of helping prisoners to turn their lives around.

Respondents heavily criticised the practice of competitive tendering for prison education contracts which means staff find themselves with new bosses and working systems every three to five years, along with a system of payment by results introduced in 2011.

Nearly two-thirds (62%) of respondents criticised competitive tendering for prison education contracts and the fact that funding is dependent on prisoners' results. Prison educators earn £15,000 a year less than people teaching in further education colleges.

The prison educators also flagged up high workloads, limited opportunity for progression, lack of professional autonomy, lack of teaching resources and training opportunities, and the low status of prison education as major concerns.

There has been documented evidence that prison education cuts the likelihood of reoffending. A Social Exclusion Unit report from 2002 showed that prisoners who do not take part in education are three times more likely to be reconvicted than those that do. 

The report's key findings included:

  • 62% of respondents were heavily critical of competitive tendering for prison education and the fact that funding is dependent on educational outcomes achieved by prisoners
  • 86% of respondents reported they worked over and above their contracted hours
  • 85% strongly disagreed or disagreed that the available ICT resources enabled them to carry out their job effectively
  • only half of respondents were on full-time contracts with the other half employed part-time with a contract or hourly paid
  • the survey found a £15,000 difference between the modal salaries reported for prison educators and those teaching in further education colleges
  • half of respondents reported that they were, 'likely to look for a new job in the next 12 months'
  • 97% of prison educators have a degree-level qualification or above and/or a teaching qualification
  • 75% of respondents had previously worked in other educational settings and were attracted to working in prison to make full use of their experience.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'We have the key ingredient to turn offenders' lives around in the form of a committed and highly qualified workforce, but this report warns that opportunity is being squandered.

'It is very worrying that the people tasked with educating prisoners report that aspects of their work environment are having a negative impact on the quality of education they can provide.

'Competitive retendering is not appropriate for prison education which needs consistency and certainty. We would like to see our prison educators paid on a par with college lecturers, given better terms and conditions, and adequate resources to do their job.

'The current system is driven by short-term concerns about profit with no regard to the long-term consequences which will be far more expensive, as we all pay when people go back and forth through a revolving door of incarceration.'

Dr Lynne Rogers, Reader in Education at the Institute of Education, University of London, said: 'Prison education is challenging. Particular barriers to teaching and learning include the frequent movement of prisoners and delivering learning in a context where security is paramount.

'Prison educators have a high level of motivation and commitment to their learners. However, they reported lack of access to continuing professional development in a specialist field, poorer pay than their counterparts in further education and poor working conditions.  

'Effective education of prisoners is essential as part of reducing re-offending and social exclusion. It is therefore crucial that the professionalism of prison educators is raised to ensure the continued recruitment of well-qualified and committed specialists.'

The report:

Prison education: professionalism against the odds - executive summary, Feb 14 [102kb]

Prison education: professionalism against the odds, Feb 14 [651kb]


The report's findings are based on a questionnaire completed by 278 prison educators, who are members of UCU and working in England, between April and May 2013.

Last updated: 10 December 2015