The political elite should represent different lifestyles

This blogger thinks that Ed Miliband should have stood proud in his decision to live out of wedlock.

This blogger thinks that Ed Miliband should have stood proud in his decision to live out of wedlock. Do you agree?

Today Ed Miliband became a husband. What a waste, I mourn, and for reasons other than his geek bachelor charm. I toyed with the idea it was my duty to stop it, the ceremony being only a bus ride from my house.

One last-ditch race to the hotel (not a church, at least . . . thank God) and things could have been so different, as the registrar asked if anyone "knew a reason" why they shouldn't wed. "Yes me!" I should have cried. "Because you don't need to, because you said you didn't want to, and because there are many of your electorate who feel the same."

When the newly elected Ed became the first British party leader to live with his family outside of marriage, he suddenly became a rather more attractive catch. In a refreshing demonstration of progression and free thought, Ed and Justine were swapping matrimony for happy cohabitation and ignoring the multiple media outlets that criticised them for the act.

Ed turned down Christine Bleakley's kind offer of proposing to his partner live on air, and to the traditionalists it was tacitly explained that commitment didn't come with a piece of paper and all women weren't pining for a diamond ring. It was all going so well – until they got engaged.

Faced with enough public scrutiny, two adults who had been sharing their lives with a home and children were now making the "real" commitment of institutionalism and legal documentation. For me, a love affair that had started so promisingly was quickly turning sour. Under the spotlight of the right-wing press, before Ed knew it, the personal had become the political. Far from being the time to rush to the altar, this was the time to stand proud.

Marriage is a valid option in life, but there are several fine alternatives, as Miliband had the chance to show. A woman doesn't need to have her man's baby to prove she loves him, and he doesn't need to get down on one knee.

There are different models of relationships in modern Britain, a range of choices to be had, and these are not things to be ashamed of, not values to brush quietly to one side. They are, rather, lifestyles that vast portions of the citizenry choose daily, and choices the political elite should have the strength to represent. In saying "I do" to his partner today, Ed looked at the electorate and said: "I don't."

Frances Ryan is a freelance writer and political researcher at the University of Nottingham.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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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.