The importance of a moment to account

The Institute of Chartered Accountants plead for reform of public accounting in the midst of economic flux

Sustainability, transparency and reform have been held up as the shining beacons of our economic recovery. Our politics, our budget and our ethos are placed back on drawing boards across the country in the quest to return the UK to its heyday of steady economic growth. The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, however, offer some brief words of caution.

Whilst our wild ideas about the importance of spending or cuts, the role of elections and representation and the significance public or private sector investment are important, there are some basic changes which have to happen before they can make lasting change. We have to set our ideological angst and meta-debates to one side for a moment, and take a look at the books.

Architects of international financial reporting standards have responded to the crisis by reforming the information and presentation of accounts across the world. Britain seems to lack the political will to get behind this change, yet improved financial reporting would make the nation’s accounts more consistent with those of the fifty countries which have already adopted the new standards laid out by the International Public Sector Accounting Standards Board. Greater consistency and greater comparability gained from international financial reporting will help on the road to recovery by increasing confidence and transparency.

Better financial training for all public servants is an intrinsic part of this process, the ICAEW argue. This training, with a long-term change in attitude towards our accounts, will help to improve understandings of public sector finances and, with that, understanding of policy. Once our public servants, and the international community, can access accounts more consistently, we can report with greater confidence on the state of the economy.

Sustainability, transparency and reform have a right to be seen as a beacon of recovery. Passionate debates on the right course for the country need to be had but, for the sake of our understanding and the happiness of our accountants, let's take a look at the books first.

Dusty ledgers, sadly no longer the tools of accounting. Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Robb reads PPE at Oxford University where she is deputy editor of ISIS magazine.

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Michael Gove's quiet revolution could transform prisoner education

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove is quietly embarking on the most substantive prison education reform programme for a generation. In September, Gove announced that Dame Sally Coates would chair a review of the provision and quality of education in prisons, the results of which are expected shortly.

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate. In 2014, Ofsted reported that education levels across the British prison system were inadequate, suggesting that “very few prisoners are getting the opportunity to develop the skills and behaviours they need for work.” Between 2011/12 and 2013/14 the number of prisoners achieving a level 1 or 2 qualification in Mathematics fell by a third, and since 2010 the number of prisoners studying for an Open University degree has dropped by 37%.

In light of these damning statistics, Gove’s calls for prisons to become “places of education” is to be welcomed. The most obvious result of improved opportunities for training and education is that upon leaving prison offenders will be more likely to secure employment and less likely to reoffend. Less tangible, but no less important, limited opportunities for education hinder aspiration and prevent the justice system from acting as a conduit to improving society at large. Too often offenders are unable to develop their potential as citizens and contribute accordingly. Education is a powerful force in building offenders’ confidence and helping to engage with their communities upon release: helping to break the cycle of offending.

In tandem with enhanced opportunities for education, skills and training, Gove has promised greater autonomy for prison governors. Currently, the Skills Funding Agency manages the Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) to connect offender education with mainstream provision. Speaking before the APPG on Penal Affairs, Dame Sally suggested that “many governors feel very frustrated by their lack of ability to have any say in the education delivered.  If we want the governors to be accountable, they have to have the autonomy to contract for this for themselves, or employ their own teaching staff.”

The principle of increased flexibility is a good one. A significant minority of prisoners already have qualifications and require opportunity to build upon them. The education pathways available to them will be quite different to those offenders who enter prison with limited numeracy and literacy skills. However, the high-profile failure of private suppliers to deliver even the most basic services, raises questions as to whether major outsourcing firms will be able to provide these.

In 2014, A4E prematurely pulled out of a £17m contract to deliver education and training to prisoners in 12 London prisons on the grounds that it was unable to run the contract at a profit. This was not the first time that A4E had prematurely terminated a prison education contract. In 2008 the firm ended a similar contract to provide education in eight Kent prisons, again citing huge losses.

Recognising such failures, the Prime Minister has argued that his government’s reform program would “allow new providers and new ideas to flourish”, but the steps to achieving this are unclear. Identifying the difficulty smaller providers – particularly those from the third sector – currently have in winning and delivering contracts is a far easier task than redesigning the contracting system to improve their chances.

There are three steps that could act as a starting point. First, a review of commissioning to ensure a plurality of providers, particularly from small and medium-sized organisations should be considered, with payments-by-results the favoured means of remuneration. Second, providers and experts should be empowered to contribute to the reform process that follows the Coates Review’s publication. Third, it is clear that while a universal standard of education must be set, providers and governors should be empowered to experiment and innovate to seek results above this. In sacrificing universality it may be possible to improve methods and achieve better results in future.

Reforming the prison system is not a task that will be easy, nor one that will be quick. To ensure its long-term success it is vital that education and skills providers’ voices are heard and that the government develops forums through which ideas can be shared. For too long talent, resources and time have been wasted through mismanagement and poor provision. Now is the time to reverse this and ensure that the justice system delivers rehabilitation and improved educational outcomes.