Improving education in prison

education in prisonMy response to the Coates Review on the potential for edtech to solve some of the intractable problems with education in prisons

As a Head Teacher, Dame Sally Coates turned Burlington Danes from one of the worst schools in London to one of the best. Now, as Director of United Learning’s Southern Academies, she is becoming an influential figure in the education debate. She recently urged that “every child aged 4-14 should be taught the same topics from a prescriptive national curriculum at the same time”. I do not entirely agree with Dame Sally on this, as I made clear in my article Setting the Curriculum, but I think the basic argument that curriculum development should be centralised is right and comes as a welcome antidote to the poorly thought-through current fashion for curriculum autonomy. This has been given its most recent airing by the very poorly argued Assessment Without Levels report. I shall be reviewing this report and drilling down in some detail into the issue of the curriculum in my next posts, discussing what we mean by the term “curriculum”, what its purpose should be, what we mean when we say that it it should be coherent, and what its relationship should be to assessment and teaching.

In the meantime, Dame Sally has been asked by Michael Gove for advice on how to improve education in prison. 

As my partner is responsible for monitoring education on the Independent Monitoring Board of one of our local prisons, I am aware of many of the endemic problems of prison education. We responded together to the online questionnaire (now closed), which included a number of questions that specifically focused on the potential of education technology. As this is a complex subject, as laden with false promise as with genuine potential, I supplemented our answers to the questionnaire with a short paper on edtech, which I publish here.

Having also recently spoken at a conference on military e-learning, what I particularly want to emphasise is that there are certain common prerequisites that need to be put in place if edtech is to be effective in any of the many different sectors to which it has such a significant contribution to make. What we need is a cross-sector effort that pools the expertise and requirements of education in schools, in FE, in HE, in prisons, in the military, and in corporate training and private tuition. The generic requirements are the same and, at a generic level, so are the solutions.


Current education provision in prisons is weak. The causes of this weakness stem from a combination of:

  • the intrinsic difficulty of the task,
  • a general weakness in educational theory and research,
  • organizational problems within prisons.

Given the nature of the challenge, it should be recognised that there are no quick fixes. While certain remedial measures can be taken, the underlying problems will not be solved without adopting a more technical approach to the business of education.

The nature of education technology

Many people have proposed that technology can be used to improve the quality of education. But, in spite of extensive government spending, particularly between 1997 and 2010, the evidence for the success of education technology is vanishingly small. A recent OECD report (September 2015) showed an inverse relationship between countries with high academic achievement and those spending the most on education technology. A report by the London School of Economics (May 2015) showed that schools tended to achieve better academic results after they had banned mobile phones in classrooms. [Note: I analysed these reports in Assessing the evidence for edtech].

The failure of education technology to date should not be taken to indicate a lack of potential, but rather to show poor implementation, often imposed by top-down government diktat.

The community that has advised government on these matters continues to confuse the teaching of technology as a curriculum objective with the use of technology to improve education outcomes of all sorts. Such a confusion of ends and means represents a fundamental fallacy. The government-commissioned report of the Education Technology Action Group (ETAG) (January 2015) answered the government’s question about how technology could improve education by arguing for a change of educational objectives, saying that digital literacy was “an essential contemporary skill set”. [Note: I analysed this report in After ETAG].

When it comes to pedagogy, the approach favoured by the edtech community has emphasised independent learning, pursuing personal objectives set by the student. The internet is often seen as the ideal environment in which such independence can be attained. What constitutes good teaching continues to be seen as a matter for the intuition of individual teachers, of only tangential significance to the self-actuated development of the individual student. There is widespread opposition to the view that teaching should address pre-determined learning objectives, to the view that the effectiveness of different instructional processes can be measured, and to the possibility of creating instructional methods which can be widely and successfully replicated.

This basic set of assumptions, so common among teachers and educationalists, needs to be turned on its head if the quality of education, across all sectors, is to improve. Such an intellectual revolution will never be achieved through theoretical debate with those refuse the accept the basic premises of the argument. It can only be achieved through the demonstration of instructional methods that work, assessing the impact of such methods against clearly defined and widely accepted objectives.

The subordination of means to clearly defined ends is the characteristic of a technological approach to any endeavour. The successful application of digital technology to education must therefore start with a recognition that teaching is itself a technology, a term that is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the application of science to a practical purpose”.

Such a reinterpretation of what teaching at scale requires rests on the potential of digital technology to contribute in three distinct ways to improving education in all sectors:

  • the delivery of interactive and engaging learning experiences;
  • the management of complex processes, as are required for appropriate feedback and the adaptive management of progression;
  • the use of analytics to increase the reliability and validity of assessment, used for both formative and summative purposes.

Potential benefits of education technology in prisons

The particular problems of education in prison can be summarized as follows:

  • the low levels of motivation of most students (see comment by Michael Allcock, below, to the effect that this is closely tied to low self-esteem);
  • the difficulty of recruiting and retaining good instructors;
  • the diverse and transient nature of the population.

The problem of motivation can be addressed by the development of computer software that:

  • supports engaging interactive experiences that help the student to attain appropriate learning objectives;
  • allows the student to fail privately and without public shame;
  • ensures that the work students are set is correctly pitched, being neither too difficult nor too easy;
  • motivates students through a clear sense of improving mastery;
  • is backed by assessment methodologies that are sufficiently authoritative to be linked to useful and credible certification regimes.

This same sort of computer software can help mitigate the difficulty of recruiting and retaining good instructors:

  • better motivated students mean better working conditions for instructors;
  • learning materials that are authored by specialist Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and Instructional System Designers (ISDs) will help compensate for any lack of knowledge on the part of the instructor about subject matter or pedagogy—in other words, computers can help centralise expertise;
  • good computer courseware can help maintain high expectations, which may frequently be compromised by the instructor’s limited understanding of the subject and by the daily attrition of disciplinary problems;
  • edtech that supports so-called “blended learning” does not exclude the teacher but helps scaffold and support professional development by stepping them through processes that are well designed and help achieve successful outcomes.

The diverse and transient nature of the prison population requires good quality information systems to track student requirements, to match these to appropriate courses, and to devise learning pathways that are optimised for each student. [Note: I could have added here that the digitisation of student records and schemes of work will help continuity as prisoners are transferred between prisons or when, as happens only too frequently, they return to prison for successive sentences].

Realising the potential of education technology

Good quality courseware will be interactive and well integrated into back-end management systems. Developing such high quality courseware is not easy. A recent survey funded by the Gates Foundation (June 2015) found widespread dissatisfaction with the quality of computer courseware in American Higher Education.

At a general level, this problem needs to be addressed by de-coupling the development of software that supports generic interactions (common types of game, card-sorting, textual analysis, voice-activated interactions, exploratory activities, discussions and debates, creative activities of different sorts etc.) with the implementation of those generic activities in the context of a particular course. The first requires the work of an expert software development team, the second requires the work of an ISD, working with a pick-and-mix palette of instructional tools.

The following points suggest some of the characteristics of a government-led initiative that will support the production of more effective edtech.

  1. Education professionals (academics, teachers and administrators) do not have the expertise to create effective educational technologies and, contrary to the popular wisdom of teachers, the quality of the technology matters very much. It therefore follows that government must involve industry in the creation of effective digital technologies for education.
  2. Industry must operate within a competitive environment and be given the freedom to innovate, compete and collaborate. Government-procured IT systems have been notoriously unsuccessful. The role of government in this enterprise must be to foster a competitive market, helping to define success criteria but not dictating the means by which success is to be achieved.
  3. The reliable specification of success criteria in education requires a better understanding of how to describe learning objectives in a way that is measurable, reliable and valid. It has only recently been acknowledged that the criteria, or “levels”, by which lower school education has been assessed for twenty years, are largely meaningless. The fact that he profession took so long to reach this conclusion illustrates the dysfunction of the academic community, seen from a technical point of view.
  4. Because effective education technology will require the recording, processing and sharing of data about student performance, the government should take urgent action to establish a regulatory environment that will protect the privacy of individuals while enabling the legitimate use of personal data in education, as well as in other sectors such as health.
  5. Because the basic principles of successful education technology are generic, the initiative must not be restricted to any particular sector, but must involve education in prisons, formal education through all age ranges, vocational and military training, as well as being open to the expertise and investment available in commercial markets for corporate training and private tuition. All sectors will benefit from such a collaborative effort.

2 thoughts on “Improving education in prison

  1. I read all your reports with great interest, even though my expertise is the teaching of mathematics not technology. I have, until now, fully endorsed your educated and informed view of current edtech campaigns.
    The current blog however strays into a field where I can comment, both as an insider and as an academic researcher, prison education. I too have posted feedback on the Dame Sally online questionnaire stating key areas of concern I have. The initial tone I agree with, technology can bring benefits especially in the area of sharing past achievements. The current Learner Record Service (LRS) being inadequate with some learners taking the same course multiple times, not conducive for motivation. However what your blog missed is the general total lack of self-esteem the majority of learners in prison education have. A computer algorithm cannot address this type of issue. It requires dedicated skilful professional tutors who, over time, can offer the right support, encouragement and praise via human interaction to change a person’s perception of education and more importantly themselves.
    Michael Allcock

    • Hello Michael,

      Many thanks for your comment, which I completely agree with. The fault in my post is I hope merely one of expression and what (in the attempt to be brief, something which does not come easily to me) I missed out.

      It is my strongly held view that technology cannot replace the teacher, partly because of the vital importance of relationships and role-modelling, in which the issue of self-esteem is mixed. This was the basis for my opposition to MOOCS ( and I reiterated this point in my more recent piece on research (

      If you divide education into two parts (acknowledging that all such classifications are to some degree artificial):
      a) technology and process
      b) human relationships…

      …we can then examine the relationship between those two halves. Superficially, one might think it is an either-or – one person has a touchy-feely approach to education, another is cold and Gradgrindian.

      But I don’t think it works like that. Having well-designed educational processes does not undermine the possibility of developing good relationships. Indeed, the stress to the teacher of having to do everything (design and deliver the lesson, keep everyone entertained etc) is what undermines relationships – I am reminded of a passage from Kim Taylor, Director of Learning Resources at the Nuffield Institute in the 1970s, whom I have quoted before:

      “The modern teacher, as he emerges in conferences and in articles, is expected to achieve prodigies of co-ordination, busking his restive audience like a one-man band”.

      Having good processes, activities and tools in place, allows the teacher to spend more time in building good relationships. Prisoners are more likely to develop good relationships with instructors in whose classes they have some fun, than with those who require them to plough through deadly dull workbooks.

      At the same time, having entertaining (as well as instructive) activities to work on releases the teacher to develop better relationships. This was certainly my experience of teaching with computers in school – the babysitting function gave me the time to have much more interesting conversations with students than if I was having to do everything at the front of the class.

      Many would put motivation firmly into the second part of my classification – human relationships. But a point I make in the article is that one should not underestimate the importance to motivation of having a strong sense of increasing mastery – i.e. in being well taught, in which good control of technology and process is very important.

      So when you say

      “However what your blog missed is the general total lack of self-esteem the majority of learners in prison education have. A computer algorithm cannot address this type of issue”.

      I agree that I may not have emphasized this enough, but on your side I think you might be over-lightly dismissing the significance of the algorithm. Its not the algorithm itself that can improve self-esteem but the sort of interactions that the algorithm can enable. Crunching the performance data to confirm performance improvements as they occur (seeing through the variability that clouds the underlying trend), and recognizing that improvement in a way that is clear to the student and to the instructor. Using gamification methods (acknowledging that this is a sort of extrinsic reward system) – again, based on algorithms – in ways which we can see can work as a powerful motivator, perhaps particularly of young men. And then using good information systems (I see more continuity between learning management and prison management) to share this information not only with the instructor, but also with the OMU and anyone else with a stake in sentence planning.

      So I think there is a sequence here: motivate, carefully monitor and acknowledge progress, share this information with people, give those people more space to build relationships, which are powerfully re-enforced by the clear sense of purpose, the sense of fun and the sense of progress.

      In short, I acknowledge the important of self esteem and of developing good relationships, but I think that good IT will not take away from this but will rather support it, at many different levels of the prisoner’s interactions with those responsible for education and rehabilitation.


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