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The wicked problem of prison education : what are the perceptions of two key stakeholder groups on the impact of tame and wicked approaches to prison education?

Wilkinson, Sharron Fiona


Sharron Fiona Wilkinson


Mike Bottery


Today’s prison system in England and Wales has been developed as one solution to the issue of how society should deal with offenders, and part of this approach is to provide an education service that contributes towards the rehabilitation of offenders by helping them to gain qualifications that can lead to employment. For almost two hundred years the role of prison education has been based on the perceived purposes of prisons, which have dictated how offenders have been treated and what role prison education has to play in this treatment. At present three sets of policies, further education, prison education and penal policy, are used by government to determine the role of prison education and deal with the issues it presents. This thesis uses the concept of ‘wicked’ problems to investigate what two key stakeholder groups, prison educators and their managers, believe are the key issues in prison education and the impact of the policy approaches that are used to deal with them. The concepts of wicked and tame problems are derived from Rittel and Webber’s analysis of the rational planning approaches that were being applied in the 1960s to complex social policy issues such as housing and health. From this Rittel and Webber proposed that there were ten criteria that could be used to characterise an issue as ‘wicked’. These ten criteria underpin the questions used to answer the main research question for the thesis: 'What are the perceptions of two key stakeholder groups on the impact of tame and wicked approaches to prison education?' The research was founded in an interpretivist-constructivist philosophy and adopted a qualitative approach in the form of in-depth interviews with 12 participants, consisting of three managers and nine educators, all based in one prison setting in the north of England.

From the analysis of the interviews it was concluded that both the educators and the managers acknowledged the complexities of the system within which they worked and some of the issues that arose from this situation. They also believed that policy makers and the prison system adopted tame approaches to deal with these issues and, whether consciously or unconsciously, replicated some of these in their own approach prison education. There were some areas of agreement between the views of the educators and their managers on the key issues in prison education, how they may be addressed and if they could be solved. However, there was not a sufficient level of consensus to be able to formulate an agreement on which issues were the most pressing, or to devise an approach to deal with them, a situation which in itself confirmed that prison education was a wicked problem. This thesis therefore suggests that the first step in attempting to address the problem of prison education is for stakeholders to better appreciate its wicked nature, for only then can further steps be taken towards building a shared understanding of the issues through the involvement of all stakeholders. It has to be accepted by all stakeholders, including government and policy makers, that there may be ways of improving the situation by addressing some of the issues, but there is no 'right' answer to the wicked problem of prison education that will solve all of the issues 'once-and-for-all'.


Wilkinson, S. F. (2017). The wicked problem of prison education : what are the perceptions of two key stakeholder groups on the impact of tame and wicked approaches to prison education?. (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date Sep 20, 2017
Publicly Available Date Feb 23, 2023
Keywords Education
Public URL
Additional Information Department of Education Studies, The University of Hull
Award Date Jan 1, 2017


Thesis (1.8 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 2017 Wilkinson, Sharron Fiona. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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