In this guest blog, Rod Clark Chief Executive of Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) sets out to demystify the major reforms of prison education commissioning that are underway.
PET provides the secretariat for the Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA), an alliance of voluntary sector organisations committed to prison education. The PLA has been staying up to date with developments on prison education contracts - from briefings before the 2015 election, through the Coates Review and to the launch of the government’s Education and Employment Strategy last month. Throughout we have been bringing the voice of the sector and of prisoner learners to the policy officials working on the reforms. So here is my take on what is emerging from the reforms and the opportunities for organisations in the voluntary sector.
The big picture opportunity – and some caveats
The first point to note is that the reforms offer a real opportunity for flexibility and creativity – the sorts of areas in which voluntary organisations often excel. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) are working to a broad definition of what constitutes education that very much reflects what the PLA has been pushing for:
“The purpose of education in prisons is to give individuals the skills they need to unlock their potential, gain employment and become assets to their communities. It should also build social capital and improve the well-being of prisoners during their sentences and once released.” - Opening paragraph of the MoJ prison education Target Operating Model
It’s not just about functional literacy and numeracy skills, important though they are. It includes the development of the individual with an eye both to their time in custody and beyond. Prison governors will have much more direct control over prison budgets. So if they believe that mentoring, Higher Education, music, sport, mindfulness, conflict resolution, family learning or niche skills connected to small local employers are what the prisoners in their care need, they are empowered to offer them. This is a great opportunity for voluntary organisations that have the skills and expertise to support them.
But there are two main caveats. Even though an organisation may believe, and have evidence, that their programme is just what prisoners in the local prison need, the governor may have different ideas. And just because a vast range of education may be possible, it does not mean to say that it will be affordable. There is a real need for prisoners to acquire basic skills in literacy, numeracy, ICT and English as a foreign language. We will have to see if there is enough money to buy everything else we might believe would be valuable. Watching closely to ensure that the prison education budgets are, at the very least, maintained will be an important task for the PLA.
So how can voluntary organisations get involved?
1: the Prison Education Framework (PEF)
Prison education is currently provided in England under the Offender Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) contract. There are four providers, Novus, Milton Keynes College, Weston College and People Plus, who run the education offer and employ the education staff in most prisons. There is currently a big procurement process underway to select core education providers for the prisons from April 2019. The name for this is the Prison Education Framework (PEF). If your organisation is a bidder for those contracts, you will know all about it. If you aren’t, you have missed the boat because the deadline for tenders is past. But these contracts will only be suitable for larger organisations (like the existing providers) capable of delivering education in multiple prisons. Few voluntary organisations are of that scale. But that does not mean to say that a smaller niche organisation might not be subcontracted by a PEF provider to deliver particular specialist programmes or services that a prison governor wants and the PEF provider agrees to procure. A prison governor who wants to offer a wide range of education might well want to work with their provider in this way. But it must be said that the scope for exploring these opportunities beyond discussions in principle is currently limited. We won’t know the shortlist of possible PEF bidders for each group of prisons until September and the actual identity of the provider for each prison until around the New Year.
2: the Dynamic Purchasing System (DPS)
This is the route for working in a prison on education without going via the PEF provider. The DPS will be an online procurement system that any organisation that wants to offer services can join at any time. Prison governors can hold back a proportion (probably in practice a relatively small proportion) of their education budget to buy services in this way. Prison governors can then post a requirement for a service they are looking for (specialist welding course, music based group work, etc.), then providers on the system are notified and can then submit a proposal for delivering. The MoJ are planning for the system to be relatively easy to join. In many ways this could be an ideal route for small voluntary organisations to get involved. But there are again some points to note. The governor needs to know that your programme is right for their prison and is unlikely to issue a specification for it unless they already understand what is possible. Developing contacts with the prison will remain vital. The other drawback is that the maximum time period for any DPS contract to run is 12 months. That won’t be a problem for a one-off project where the voluntary organisation already has the infrastructure to deliver it. But it could be a real constraint if you need to invest in recruiting staff, premises or equipment. A subcontract with the PEF provider may be preferable for a longer-term service.
For a voluntary sector organisation interested in providing education (broadly defined) in prisons it will make sense to at least stay in touch with how the DPS develops. It is not yet possible to get onto the system to get contracts through that route. We expect it to be opened up later in the year; and even though it is available, governors won’t get their hands on the education budgets to use through it until April 2019. But if you do want to stay in touch with the opportunity you can register with the MoJ’s market engagement via their Bravo portal. The attached flier from the MoJ talks through how to do this.
As we know education can transform prisoners’ lives. Voluntary organisations have huge amounts of expertise and enthusiasm to offer. Let’s hope we can have a real impact in the new world.
Click here to find out more about the Prisoner Learning Alliance and to become a member.
Click here to read our resource for Governors to help planning for education commissioning.
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