A Case Study in Prisoners’ Education
- There is a school of thought, influential among Conservative MPs and some Government Ministers, that charities should be about good works: practical action to help others. They should leave political matters and campaigning to politicians. This thinking surfaced when the late lamented Minister for Civil Society, Brooks Newmark MP, told charities to “stick to their knitting”, picking up a phrase previously used by a new Board Member of the Charity Commission. It surfaced again recently when the Cabinet Office announced that charities grant aided by Government would not be allowed to use that money to seek to influence Government, policy-makers or regulators in any way: public money should, said Minister Matt Hancock MP, be used for good causes as opposed to advocacy.
- Charity Commission guidance, by contrast, recognises that political activity, defined as activity to influence policy, law-making or state actions and administration, can be a valuable part of a charity’s contribution, so long as it is not party political, and is solely directed to advancing a charitable objective. This guidance is in line with a strong historical tradition, especially from the great campaigns to abolish the slave trade and then slavery itself onwards, of voluntary sector activity to educate and influence the political sphere on behalf of causes that are now designated by Parliament as charitable. (See my lecture of 2 September 2015 on this history).
- “Political activity”, as defined by the Charity Commission, is not restricted to flamboyant public campaigning. It also includes providing research and briefing papers deriving from front line experience, unlikely to be available by other means to those busy in Whitehall or Westminster. Charities can often provide a voice for their users or members which might otherwise not be brought to bear on policy making at all.
- Now let us jump to a notable political event: the unveiling in Autumn 2015 by the new Secretary of State for Justice, the Rt Hon Michael Gove, MP of a fresh approach to his responsibilities for prisons. The palpable change of atmosphere was felt particularly in his creative emphasis on education as a key aspect of rehabilitation. The keynote speech announcing this new policy orientation was delivered at the offices used by a small but influential charity: the Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET). At the request of PET, Gove was pleased to include in his audience a number of PET alumni: former prisoners who could speak from personal experience about the importance of his chosen subject.
- It was no coincidence that Gove had seized on prisoners’ education as a crucial theme of his new policy. His personal commitment to education is not in doubt. But, in addition, this is what PET and its many partners had been preparing and arguing for. Thanks to them, Gove and his civil servants could short cut to a body of ideas and experience, ideal for his social reforming ambitions and ripe for adoption. This was a classic case of how a charity, which once delivered its own services alone, had decided to grow a dimension of advocacy, research, alliance-building and advice to policy makers and practitioners, based on the experience and voice of its users and allies.
- So why did this dimension of non-party political activity develop? Why not remain a practical charity just providing grants to individual prisoners for distance learning, which is how PET began?
- Firstly, PET soon learned from its users that the ability of prisoners to learn while in custody is deeply affected by policy and rules at different levels. Security rules can determine access to basic learning materials and to the internet or to videos. Prison officers’ attitudes can make a major difference to whether a prisoner is encouraged to spend time studying and developing educational ambition, or treated in ways that have the opposite effect. It can be very difficult to study if you share a cell with someone unsympathetic. The scope of the educational resources open to prisoners partly depends on the level of resources deployed by the relevant Government Departments. So just providing charitable grants for individual distance learning had severe limitations unless one also addressed the wider context of rules, resources and policy. Anyone listening to the voice of prisoners explaining how much it meant to them, and how difficult and frustrating the rules and policies could be, was bound to consider what to do about influencing those rules and policies.
- Secondly, there is the question of the numbers of beneficiaries that can be reached. The founders of PET, originally based in a kitchen in Southfields from 1989, worked wonders in raising money, at first from concerts and the like, later from City donors. They were directly assisting prisoners in over 100 prisons by 2001. But there were still enormous numbers of prisoners who were in other prisons, or who were in the same prisons but unable to get a grant, and there always would be if the only resource were PET’s charity fundraising. Like so many other charities, PET knew that it was foolish to try and do it all itself. The key was to reach out to policy makers and to those able to encourage and enable learning at different levels of Government, the voluntary sector and the prison service. Alliance-building and influencing could spread PET’s insights and methods, to be taken up by others. That way, it was more likely that a much greater number of prisoners would benefit from education.
- Thirdly, the exposure to so many prisoners, who know so much about their own predicament, aspirations and needs, bred the growing awareness that prisoners themselves were best able to express these to the people wanting to rehabilitate them. In addition, it was part of the rehabilitative process for prisoners to feel listened to and respected, helping to improve their self-respect and confidence. It therefore became a fundamental part of the mission to magnify prisoners’ voices, which might otherwise be largely ignored in public debate and policy making. This held greater promise of fulfilling the purposes of the charity than simply providing valuable services alone.
- Fourthly, like all good charities, PET from time to time went back to basics, to ask itself: what are we really trying to achieve? How can we do it better or differently, to achieve even more for our beneficiaries? It was willing to review its strategy seriously, and innovate. If the overall vision of the charity was a country where prisoners use their time in prison better, become more fulfilled people, better able to integrate into society and lead a good life, the Trustees could not be happy to rest on their “good works” laurels. They needed to learn from their own experience, share their insights, influence others to help towards their goal, shape debate and agendas.
- These considerations were the drivers of the charity’s developing research and policy work. A first project to spread the message that “Learning Matters” was piloted with the support of grant-giving charitable Trusts from 2008 to 2010. A more ambitious phase followed from 2011 to 2014. Some of the activities carried out were:
- A string of reports tackled issues such as the role of sport in rehabilitation; what prisoners themselves said about their experience of learning in prison; advice and resources aimed at prison officers, to help them understand and facilitate the role of developing the prisoner voice in their establishments; and (with the Prison Reform Trust) how computers could safely and effectively be used to help learning and rehabilitation
- PET was able to respond to various Government or parliamentary enquiries
- They produced hard evidence to show that reoffending rates were lower for prisoners who had benefitted from grants for distance learning, demonstrating their impact
- They involved Ministers in briefings and in the launch of their key reports, and influenced servants and Parliamentarians more systematically than before.
- They set up an alumni network of those who have benefitted from PET grants or advice, as one means of giving them a voice.
- They set up and service the Prisoners’ Learning Alliance, bringing together representatives from other charities, educational institutions, Prison Governors, training bodies, and Whitehall Departments behind a common agenda. It meets quarterly. Listening to prisoners or former prisoners forms part of every meeting agenda. It was as part of this wider Alliance that PET produced a report called “Smart Rehabilitation”; this assessed how approaches to learning could best secure positive outcomes both for prisoners and for the wider society. It was this inclusive work that was ready for Michael Gove when he entered the scene with a desire to find new, constructive ways forward for criminal justice.
- Importantly, PET had their “Learning Matters” project independently evaluated in 2014. It found that “PET has been astute in identifying areas where movement is possible, and finding ways to encourage positive changes to policy and practice in the short term, whilst laying the groundwork for longer term change” Such were the positive outcomes of this work that the Trustees decided to position policy and research work, no longer as an add-on project, but as “a core part of our on-going strategy”. That is exactly the journey that so many great charities have made, so poorly understood by those who think they should stick to “good works” or “their knitting”.
- Of course, PET continues its important good works in the narrow sense: it works directly across 125 prisons and helps about 2000 individual prisoners each year with grants and advice to enable their learning. But its good work in support of its mission is now broader, because this is the way of influencing the all-important policies and rules affecting their beneficiaries, of reaching larger numbers of prisoners, of driving up the quality of rehabilitation and learning, of magnifying the voices of prisoners themselves, and shifting agendas and attitudes.
- Following on from Gove’s first major speech at PET’s offices, he has tasked an expert Panel, on which PET is represented, under the chairmanship of Dame Sally Coates, to lead a review of education in prisons. The Prime Minister has added his personal, high profile support to prison reform, of which the emphasis on better education and training is a key part. Nobody knows what the recommendations or the actual outcomes in practice will be. But it’s quite a turnaround. And it is hard to envisage any such development in policy and attitude without the influencing work of PET and other key charities, who have understood that they can do more and better for their beneficiaries and society at large if they engage in non-party political and influencing activity as well as “good works”.
- So lay aside narrow ideologies of what charities “should” be like as analysed recently by Ian MacQuillan:
In the real world, PET shows how a charity can best pursue its objectives and help change the world for the better by combining good works with advocacy and other non-party political activity. Will politicians make the same journey of understanding?
 Evaluation by Jim Coe and Steve Tibbett, May 2014, p.3
 PET Annual Review 2014, p.7