In light of Michael Gove’s plan for the prison sector to learn from schools, Peter Dawson of the Prison Reform trust explains why a move towards academy-style autonomy is welcome.

Professional leaders enjoy telling others about the uniqueness of their personal challenge.

One is often reminded of Ron Manager’s bleat that football management is “the ’ardest job in the world…” And prison governors are no exception, citing an unusual clientele, close and quixotic political attention, and an eclectic workforce. What’s more, introspection is the natural condition of prison, reinforced by the physical barrier which, in an overused penal cliché, is better at keeping people out than keeping them in.

So it is hardly surprising that prison people are instinctively nervous of the “academy solution” when it comes to their world.

A move in the direction of restored autonomy is welcome

I used to be a governor, and I am certainly not immune from those jitters. But I loved the job and stopped with a heavy heart largely because I felt my freedom to do it effectively had shrunk to an unacceptable level. So a move in the direction of restored autonomy is welcome.

Fundamentally, the willingness to place more trust in the leader of an institution opens up potential which tight central control does not. And a preparedness to learn from another values-driven public service must be right.

I suspect that the academy comparison will in the end turn out to be more a useful provocation than a blueprint for prison reform – but none the less valuable for that. So these are some of the issues I hope it may force to the surface:

–  The need to define what must be prescribed and what need not. Individual human rights are under constant threat in the prison environment – being prescriptive about process is sometimes the only way to protect vulnerable individuals. But there are countless examples where the public pressure on politicians to prescribe needlessly can be intense – think Christmas menus in prisons. It’s a massive and complex task, but sorting out a consistent, defensible line on the limits of autonomy would be a boon to operators and political leaders alike.

–  Agreeing measures of success is crucial, and could force a proper debate about exactly how much we should expect of our prisons. For example, a prison ought to be safe, for prisoners as well as staff, but our current measures suggest that prisons are not. Rating prisons by the reoffending of released prisoners carries obvious pitfalls, but the symbolic importance is huge. It will force the partnership building and “long view” which is essential to the rehabilitation objective that Michael Gove has put front and centre of his programme. For many, perhaps most, of my former colleagues, the desire to make a long-term difference in people’s lives is the prime reason for doing the job – and pretty much the one thing they’re not required to measure.

The desire to make a long-term difference is pretty much the one thing they’re not required to measure

–  Uncomfortably, an academy prison will sooner or later have to address the issue of whether the way it recruits and rewards its staff makes most sense for its particular situation. Uncomfortably, because the public sector prison service operates to immensely detailed and long standing national agreements on everything from pay and grading to acceptable shift patterns. Telling a governor, as the Prime Minister did, that they will have “complete control” over their budget means little while that remains the case.

–  Investment is another centrally controlled function in the public sector prison service. It’s noticeable that every private prison in this country invested early and heavily in robust prisoner-facing ICT. Only two public prisons currently have systems that have been standard in the private sector for well over a decade. So will academy prisons be able to borrow – and if so, will they be a good bet for a lender? Private prisons borrow against the collateral of very long and historically profitable service contracts. Will academy prisons in the public sector be able to do the same?

–  And, finally, we need to confront the issue of local accountability. The condition and performance of your local prison should be as important to you as that of your local hospital or school. The people it holds have the capacity to make a significant impact on your quality of life. But before prison academies can be properly answerable to the communities they serve, we need a prison estate that keeps prisoners close to home. The major programme of both prison closures and building that is promised gives the opportunity to move towards that goal – but the government must seize it.

Peter Dawson is Deputy Director of the Prison Reform Trust