On behalf of ETBI and the 16 education and training boards, ETBs, that we represent, I am pleased to make this submission to the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science on the current and future education provision in Irish prisons. ETBs are Ireland’s leading statutory providers of education and training and are unique in providing whole-of-life education and training to all. Collectively, the 16 boards have responsibility for 27 community national schools and 246 postprimary schools with over 110,000 students. ETB postprimary schools are the largest provider of education through the medium of Irish with 47 schools. ETBs deliver further education and training, FET, to over 200,000 unique learners each year across in excess of 200 FET colleges and training centres and play a central role in the delivery of apprenticeships and traineeships in partnership with employers. The ETB sector employs more than 32,000 people and has a combined annual spend in excess of €2 billion.
It is this expertise and tradition of service that ETBI brings to its work in the prison education service.
Prison education in Ireland is delivered through a partnership between the Irish Prison Service, Education and Training Boards Ireland and organisations such as the Arts Council, Open University and Gaisce. A joint strategy statement details the strategic objectives for the prison education service and the high-level actions to be undertaken to deliver on the agreed objectives through the 2019-22 period. The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science provides, through Solas, an allocation of 220 whole-time equivalent teachers to the ETB education centres across the country. The aim of the prison education service is to deliver a quality-assured, broad and flexible programme of education that helps people in custody cope with their sentence, achieve personal development, prepare for life after release and establish an appetite and capacity for life-long learning. The service seeks to deliver relevant programmes that cater for a wide variety of needs, ensure broad access and prioritise those with basic education needs.
Historically, many of the learners attending education centres in Irish prisons have suffered extreme levels of social, economic and educational disadvantage. In a sociological profile of Mountjoy prisoners in 1997, Paul O’Mahony of Trinity College found that 80% of the prisoners in his study had left school before the age of 16 years. In the prison adult literacy survey carried out in 2003, Kett and Morgan reported that, within the general population, approximately 25% of people scored at level 1 or below, whereas within the Irish prison population 52% of respondents scored at that level. More recently, the Irish Penal Reform Trust has drawn our attention to research that suggests the prevalence of people in prison with severe mental illness is four times that of the general population, while an estimated one in two prisoners presents with substance misuse or dependence issues. Anecdotally, there is evidence that many of the prison population report having experienced several adverse childhood experiences. For these reasons, a priority for our education centres is to create a warm, supportive and welcoming environment for our learners. In recent inspections of the four City of Dublin Education and Training Board, CDETB, prison education centres carried out by the Department of Education inspectorate, it was remarked that the teaching staff enjoy a very positive relationship with their learners. The emphasis is on building the confidence of learners who often have had negative experiences of education, characterised by feelings of failure, so that they can re-engage with the world of lifelong learning.
A broad and flexible curriculum is offered so that learners have the best opportunity to study subjects in which they have an interest. In this respect, the visual arts play a central role, particularly for those who struggle with literacy issues. They function as gateway subjects to other areas of the curriculum, as well having an immense value for learners in helping them to cope with their sentences and allowing them to reflect on issues that impact on their lives. The approach adopted to the teaching of literacy skills is eclectic and follows an adult education model. One-to-one classes are available, as well as peer-to-peer programmes such as Toe to Toe. Family literacy projects such as Story Book Mums and Dads recognise that literacy can often be a generational issue within families and these projects play an important role in consolidating links between prisoners and their loved ones at home. The key priority of our literacy strategy, however, is to ensure that literacy work is integrated into all parts of the curriculum.
Digital literacy is seen by the prison education service as being of vital importance if learners are to be equipped with the competencies necessary to adapt to the needs and demands of society on release, while at the same time accessing knowledge for personal development. In common with ETB teachers, the Irish Prison Service is concerned that a digital divide will further disadvantage learners in prison education centres. As was pointed out by Ms McCaffrey, the teaching of ICT-based skills in a custodial setting presents unique challenges to educators and prison management alike. For this reason, there has been an increased level of collaboration between prison management and the ETB education providers to ensure solutions are arrived at that give learners access to digital education while at the same time minimising security risks.
While engagement with the ETB education centre can be transformative for learners in many cases, there is a need for support structures to help learners pursue progression routes post release.
To this end, prison education centres provide pre-release courses and guidance counsellors. In Dublin, the Pathways Centre provides a range of supports, including counselling and peer support to scaffold learners as they negotiate the complex challenges they face as they continue their learning journey in further education colleges, at third level and other places of learning.
For those re-engaging with education, the prospect of undertaking courses leading to formal examinations can be daunting and off-putting and, therefore, ETB prison education centres across the country offer a range of non-accredited courses alongside courses that offer learners the opportunity to pursue accredited learning. The State second level junior and leaving certificate courses are available but increasing numbers of people in custody require a more flexible curriculum that has multiple entry and exit points. QQI accreditation is, therefore, widely used with assessment by portfolio compilation.
All prison education centres meet the quality assurance standards demanded by QQI and for many learners this is their chosen route to accredited learning. The Open University has had a long relationship with the IPS and the ETB prison education centres. Just two weeks ago, I attended the first Open University graduations held in a Dublin prison since the ending of lockdown, when two students were conferred with degrees in environmental science.
The prison population as a whole can be seen to suffer significant disadvantage across a range of indicators but there are a number of discrete groups for whom disadvantage is particularly acute. The Traveller community is one example of this. According to the 2016 census, 57.2% of male Travellers had only primary school education, a figure four times higher than the general population. Only 13% of Traveller girls completed second level education; for the settled community, the figure is 69%.
For the past number of years, the various ETB education services have joined with the IPS and the Traveller justice initiative to help improve outcomes for members of the Traveller community. Teachers have received training in diversity and inclusion issues. Traveller champions have been appointed in each education centre to ensure Traveller culture is recognised within the curriculum. In this regard, Traveller pride events have been organised in prison education centres, which celebrate the cultural contribution of the Traveller community to society.
As the director general has outlined, the challenges facing the prison education service include a shortage of prison staff, and it can be the most frustrating for prison management and education staff. These are the staff who ensure learners are brought to education centres.. In an attempt to remedy this, the Irish Prison Service, together with ETB education centres, is developing a system of in-cell delivery by which educational courses are delivered to learners through the Prison TV channel. A total of 150 video courses and accompanying activity booklets have been produced by CDETB teachers, who are at present working with prison staff to have the TV channel ready for the next academic year.
This is only the start of this and we are on a long road. Ultimately, the holy grail is to have synchronous learning taking place whereby we can have live classes in cells. This will be the new horizon for prison education over the next five to ten years. I am really confident that with the support we are getting from the IPS, we will arrive at our destination.