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Market thinking is not the way to improve prison education

Tony Smith |  12 January 2017


In late 2016, the New South Wales Coalition government lost one of its safest seats in a by-election. Several factors were important in the loss of Orange including the usual by-election swing and the campaign by some Sydney shock-jocks. The main issues were probably the government's forced amalgamations of local councils and its ban on greyhound racing.

Mike BairdSince the loss, Premier Baird has promised more listening and the greyhound ban has been overturned. The original decision to ban the activity completely emerged so suddenly that its acceptance by the Premier casts serious doubt on the advice he receives. This pattern of launching a policy and then withdrawing it after a backlash is reminiscent of the adventures of the recent Abbott federal Coalition government.

In some areas, government might expect little backlash and hope that its absurd policies escape criticism. The decision to sack prison education teachers is a neat example. Prisoners constitute a small but growing proportion of the population. Many of them are disenfranchised.

For years, right wing media commentators have imposed double punishment on prisoners and created community panic about them. According to their self-righteous propaganda prisoners have no rights.

When I was conducting interviews in the parliament some years ago, a senior Liberal MP said that you can save on prison expenditure by spending on preschools. Education, opportunity and respect for the law are closely linked. The provision of second-chance education for inmates is important for their rehabilitation and for cutting rates of recidivism.

Yet the current Minister in charge of Corrective Services says that sacking permanent specialist education officers will increase literacy and numeracy.

Here is another anecdote. When I worked in TAFE, a previous Coalition government conducted a review of adult literacy services. The report found that the Adult Migrant Education Service was more efficient than TAFE. Naturally, I was quite interested.

As an educator, I naively assumed that the review looked at the outcomes achieved by these providers. Indeed, I knew that the assessment of learning outcomes was a difficult and controversial topic and I hoped to learn something to apply to my own students to improve my teaching practices.


"Having providers enter prisons on short term contracts will replace the existing pedagogical commitment to the students' welfare with the profit motive. This suits the ideological purity of the Coalition, but replaces the existing ethos with the amorality of the market."


I was quickly disillusioned. The review had not been an educational review but a management review. The report's approval of the AMES approach was based solely on the finding that AMES classes usually had enrolments of ten students while TAFE had four per class. The review ignored outcomes entirely in favour of the inputs. It equated cheapness with efficiency, an error that the current government's intention regarding prison education blithely — even proudly — repeats.

Having providers enter prisons on short term contracts will replace the existing pedagogical commitment to the students' welfare with the profit motive. This suits the ideological purity of the Coalition, but replaces the existing ethos with the amorality of the market. It will also destroy institutional memory. Again, this loss is something most of us deplore, but not the right wing diehards whose first and last thought is for monetary values. In order to establish the primacy of the market, a Year Zero approach is necessary.

This blank canvas approach favours carpetbaggers. When tenders are accepted from unqualified people to conduct government business such as employment agencies, the record has been abysmal. Liberal mates must be rubbing their hands together at the prospect of being given public money to run courses which no-one will evaluate and to lead hapless prisoners in directions which will never be assessed. No doubt savings will be minimal as costs are always socialised while profits are privatised.

If the argument about sacking specialist education officers for prisons holds, then perhaps it should be applied to schools. Sacking all permanent teachers and throwing all lessons across the state open to tender should improve educational outcomes. The absurdity of such a suggestion should be obvious. It is equally absurd when applied to established processes for people who happen to be incarcerated. There are always improvements to be made in provision of education. If the government is serious about improving prison education, it should work with the experienced teachers to make those improvements. No evidence has been offered to suggest removing permanent teachers will benefit inmates. The policy is absurd and should be abandoned.


Tony Smith headshotTony Smith is a political scientist and former academic who lives near Bathurst in Central West NSW.



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Submitted comments

I don't see any of the expensive religious schools so favoured by parliamentarians rushing to follow suit. Perhaps market-based strategies are only meant for the plebs.

Ginger Meggs 13 January 2017

Nice to see you reject the profit motive as the basis for public policymaking. Too bad you couldn't apply the same principle to the NSW ban on greyhound racing, a decision you call "absurd", but which placed the welfare of animals ahead of the profit motive and the "amorality of the market" that drives the racing industry and is responsible for its poor record on animal welfare.

Jeff White 14 January 2017

Education is certainly a very important issue in prisons. The educator who works in the prison system needs support and freedom to implement strategies to help disenfranchised prisoners. Of course, not every person incarcerated is badly educated or from the lowest socio-economic stratum. For those who need educational opportunities, the government should look to experienced educators with a distinct feeling for tough assignments. For these educators remuneration may not be their first priority but they do need adequate pay and conditions, a basic provision of good government.

Pam 16 January 2017

Right wing politicians emphasis on "getting tough on crime and drugs" ignore the human dimension. \Back in the 60's enlightened people decided that the main aim of prisons should be rehabilitation not punishment.We can give thanks for welfare agencies who follow the same principles. Many dedicated persons have been involved in prisons in education, art and music to give prisoners a sense of purpose. This cannot be achieved by people who see their role in prisons as just a job.

John bowstead ozanne 17 January 2017

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