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The importance of education for students in secure environments

Updated Wednesday, 19 April 2023

Marina Postlethwaite Bowler looks at the benefits of education for students in secure environments (SiSE) and the challenges faced by SiSE learners.

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Due to the ‘open’ nature of The Open University it has been able to meet the needs of a diverse range of students. This includes a significant number of students who find themselves in secure environments. Since the 1970s the Open University’s Students in Secure Environments (SiSE) programme has spread to over 150 prisons, 50 secure hospital units and students studying under licenced conditions in the community. Ensuring success for SiSE students and supporting them to achieve their goals aligns with The Open University’s strategy which is ‘to bring flexible, high-quality university education to even more people, achieving even greater societal impact as a social movement and not just a university’ (Live and Learn – The Open University Strategy 2022 to 2027).

For students in secure environments the benefits of education may include ‘escapism’ as they face challenging regimes and allow them to build social relations and embodied interactions. Education can seek to promote reflection and provide students with a highly valued experience in their lives, equipping them with the skills and qualifications to build brighter futures once they leave secure environments. Gaining an education is vital for avoiding recidivism, as The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) found (Official statistics bulletin 2021) 47% of people entering prison have no prior qualifications. Nearly two-thirds (59%) of prisoners have truanted from school, and 42% were expelled or permanently excluded from school. Many prisoners have experienced little or no success in school.

Blocks spelling out the word 'study'

However, currently the prison education landscape is in a poor state. The House of Commons Education Committee’s inquiry (2022) found a long-term decline in both the quality of education and the number of prisoners participating in learning or training.

The lack of controlled and secure access to proper online education is a significant barrier to learning. It is stifling opportunity for improvement through education and leaving prisoners unprepared for the real world, lacking the digital skills they need for employment and life skills, and reducing their likelihood of reoffending (House of Commons Education Committee May 2022)

In December 2020, Ofsted reported that nearly two-thirds of inspections of secure environments showed poor management and inferior quality of education, skills and work. Only nine of the 32 institutions inspected were judged to be good or outstanding.

Specific challenges faced by SiSE learners

Most students in secure environments struggle to have an equitable experience of higher education as they often have limited access to the internet and are therefore provided with an ‘offline pack’ of the materials they require from the module websites. Students receive this in addition to the standard hardcopy materials when studying an Open University (OU) module.

Students’ access to their learning and study support can also be limited. Education staff can vary across establishments in terms of what they can do to support students on their learning journeys. SiSE learners may have a chequered experience with education that becomes a barrier to their engagement. Many education contacts are employed by the organisation who has the education franchise for that region or prison. However, sometimes the contact is employed directly by the prison or is doing the OU liaison work as part of more wide-ranging job. As with so many things in the criminal justice system, it is an overly complex and uneven situation.

Some secure environments provide The Virtual Campus (VC), a secure platform used in prisons in England and Wales for resettlement and education purposes. This enables students to access online learning materials via a secure Moodle platform. Access to Virtual Campus can be limited and is dependent upon the individual prison’s regime. Some prisons have outdated computer systems which do not support online learning.

Submission of assignments can prove problematic if students do not have access to IT facilities and can result in handwritten submission. If there is no access to an online submission system then work has to be posted manually, resulting in delayed or limited feedback to students.

Student access to face-to-face or telephone tutorials may not always be feasible. The prison ‘route’ and regime can be altered at a moment’s notice and any organised tutorial contact is often cancelled. Thus, email contact through the education staff is the only means of any tutorial support and contact between the student and the tutor.

Professionals who work in and with the criminal justice system have been concerned about the experiences and outcomes of those with neurodivergence. This includes the inconsistency in data and assessment and the levels of knowledge and understanding of staff.

A recent joint review by criminal justice inspectorates estimates that around half of those entering prison have some form of neurodivergent condition which impacts their ability to engage (Prison reform trust 2022, Prison: the facts Bromley Briefings Summer 2022)

Furthermore, around three in ten people (29%) who chose to participate in education in prison were identified as having a learning disability or difficulty following assessment in 2019–20. Despite this, the Offender Assessment System (OASys) only records 924 prisoners (1%) as having a learning disability.

How can learning opportunities for SiSE learners be improved?

Firstly, institutions should build and reinforce links with Prisoners Education Trust (PET) who work with prisons across England and Wales, Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. PET believe that education has the power to change the lives of people in prison, and that everyone should have the chance to study while there. PET’s role includes funding courses at levels and in subjects that are otherwise unavailable, supporting students to choose courses and progress with their learning and championing the life-changing power of education to prisons, policymakers and the public. PET offer over 120 different distance learning courses, from business start-up to creative writing, GCSEs and A-levels, and Open University Access modules.

I learnt about graffiti, poetry, and activism. I started to dream of a life where I could be free to do all those things. My life had been small, and the prison was smaller but in the folds of the textbooks I was reading, I saw the world (Dalton Harrison, Prisoners’ Education Trust alumnus)

James Timpson CEO of the family-owned shoe and retail business is chair of the Prison Reform Trust, where he has devised innovative approaches to the employment of ex-offenders. Over 10% of Timpson’s workers have spent time in prison, and James is passionate about ‘developing a long-term culture of employment in the prison, helping prisoners get job-ready, and establishing links with employers “on the outside” so that people can get jobs on the day of their release’.

Education providers, such as The Open University, have a pivotal role to play in enhancing the SiSE learning experience.

Prisons provide a talent pool we should not ignore. The impact of education in prisons can be lifechanging and educators have a duty of care to explore which programmes are most effective, offer a broader curriculum and invest in research about the longer-term outcomes and destination data.


Criminal Justice Joint Inspection (2021) ‘Neurodiversity in the criminal justice system’, London: HM Inspectorate of Prisons.

House of Commons Education Committee (2022) ‘Not just another brick in the wall – why prisoners need an education to climb the ladder of opportunity’, London: HM Stationery Office. 

House of Commons Education Committee and Ofsted (2020) The Annual Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2019/20, HC 972, London: Ofsted.  

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