What the books don't tell you

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

‘‘Mummy, there’s a pretend mouse in the kitchen.” Larry has stomped into the bedroom with the imperious air of somebody bearing Very Important News. Instantly – and with a sinking feeling in my stomach – I know what this means: there is a mouse caught in the glue trap.

Glue traps are the last resort. For months, hordes of mice have been frolicking nightly around the slightly too-small flat, snacking on leftover rusks and bits of rice that have escaped my half-hearted attempts to clean up after baby Moe. We have tried “humane” traps, snap traps and poison, all to no avail. They may look small, brown and not particularly intelligent but clearly these rodents are a highly evolved super-breed.

The last straw came at 4am the other night when, having finally dropped off after settling Moe for the third time, I was awakened by the sound of scratching right next to my pillow. One thing I do not need in my life right now is anything else keeping me awake at night. So, the next morning, I marched to the corner shop and bought the glue traps: square bits of paper covered in a substance so sticky that once the mice run on to it, they can’t get off.

I creep into the kitchen. Sure enough, there on the sideboard is a tiny baby mouse, stuck fast to the trap. It must have been there for some time; it is still moving but only feebly. I creep over and look into its bulging, terrified brown eyes. It looks back at me imploringly. All I can think about is its poor mouse mummy, hiding somewhere behind the cooker, watching her baby die a horrible, prolonged death. I think about all the time that she must have waddled around pregnant, how she must have carefully built her nest, foraged for food, fed her baby right through the day and night: all for nothing. All because of me.

But there is nothing I can do. The baby mouse’s legs are so fragile that they would break if I tried to disengage it from the trap. The only course of action available is to kill it as soon as possible. I gingerly pick up the trap and the mouse and shove them into a plastic bag. Then I put that bag into another plastic bag. I don’t like to waste plastic bags but if it spares me the sight of spattered baby mouse guts, I feel it is justified.

“Mummy, what are you doing?” Larry has materialised at my side. I know from his shrewd expression that there is no way I can pussyfoot around.

“I am putting the mouse into a plastic bag, Larry, and then I’m going to take it outside and hit it with a brick.”

“Oh.” Larry looks at the floor. “Can I see?”

“Er, no. Yes. Well, I suppose so.”

So we both tromp down to the garden and Larry watches as I batter the baby mouse to death. In hindsight, I think this might have been the Wrong Parenting Strategy. It is decisions like this that the books just don’t prepare you for.

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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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.