28 Mar 2017

Free education for prisoners in three-year pilot scheme

The Open University (OU), in partnership with Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET), will offer free level 1 courses to 150 prisoners a year as part of a three-year pilot scheme to help prisoners access Higher Education, a provision which is proven to improve employment prospects and reduce reoffending. The project, which will run in England and Wales from September, is supported by a grant of £600,000 from the Garfield Weston Foundation and £300,000 from the Open University Students Educational Trust charity.

External Engagement Director at The Open University, Steve Hill, said: “The OU has led in delivering education within prisons for nearly fifty years – we know that education has the power to transform lives and prisoners who study are significantly less likely to reoffend. The cost of current levels of reoffending by former prisoners is up to an estimated £13billion a year , something society can ill afford. This scheme will help prisoner learners gain confidence, improve their prospects on release and change the direction their lives have gone in. The Open University really can be truly life changing for those who study in prison.”

The Garfield Weston Foundation is a family-founded charitable grant-making foundation which supports over 1,800 charities each year, donating over £58 million in the most recent financial year. Philippa Charles, Director of the Foundation, said “The Trustees of the Garfield Weston Foundation are delighted to support this project, which will enable men and women in prison to develop their personal confidence, capabilities and improve their chances of securing employment on release. We believe in the power of education in transforming lives, and look forward to seeing the transformative effect that improved access to higher education brings to individuals in prison across England and Wales.”

In 2016, The Coates Review – which described education in prison as “one of the pillars of effective rehabilitation” - recognised that the government’s decision in 2012 to withdraw funding for prisoners to study level 1 modules, had resulted in a large drop in student numbers throughout the prison population. The OU saw a 42% drop in learner numbers – from 1,787 in 2012 to 1,079 in 2015.

The new scholarship scheme aims to halt the decline in prisoners taking up study, with the OU and PET giving support to students throughout their chosen module of study, including advice on how to progress their studies and seek further funding by way of a student loan. The findings and outcomes from the scheme will inform policy makers and, it is hoped, encourage ministers to review policies to maximise the numbers of prisoners who gain education and training qualifications when in custody.

Rod Clark, Chief Executive, Prisoners’ Education Trust, said: “PET is delighted to be part of this exciting project to support more prisoner learners take their first steps in university-level study. As Dame Sally Coates said in her review of prison education: “Education should be aspirational. It must offer a learning journey that is truly transformational”. This includes giving people in prison the chance to pursue degrees inside. With the right support, people who may enter prison struggling to read and write can leave with qualifications and aspirations that change their lives and help them make valuable contributions to society upon release.”

Ex-offender James “Jimmy” Harris knows first-hand how life changing education can be. When he was first jailed at the age of 23, he decided to turn his life around and dedicated his time to learning new skills. He began studying for an Open University degree and is continuing this on his release, determined to complete his qualification. Having won Wales’ Adult Learner of the Year Award in 2016, he has just begun a new career as a Wellbeing Consultant and said: “My studies allowed me to broaden my horizons and as a result, my outlook on life and my priorities have completely changed.”

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