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Four months in, how are arts organisations finding the new prison education commissioning tool?

Four months in, how are arts organisations finding the new prison education commissioning tool?

Four months in, how are arts organisations finding the new prison education commissioning tool?

Our director, Jessica Plant, shares what we have heard from those using the Dynamic Purchasing System (DPS) and reflects on what the new commissioning process might mean for arts delivery in prison education.

It’s now been over four months since the new Dynamic Purchasing System (DPS) went live for bids via the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) Sourcing Portal. Its aim is to make prison education innovative, more effectively coordinated and flexible. It was set up to give prison governors and heads of learning and skills the autonomy to commission specialist or short-term education services to meet the needs of those in their care.

Tracking the DPS

Since it launched in November 2018, the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance (NCJAA) has heard a variety of responses to how the DPS is working from both our steering group and our wider network. Some of these reflections are shared in this blog, but they by no means cover the whole picture and we need to hear more in order to better support our network going forward.

Along with the Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA) and Clinks, we are tracking the experiences of those using the DPS to feed back to Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS). If you have anything to add – including if you have not used the DPS yet – please get in touch on TrackDPS@prisonerseducation.org.uk

New opportunities?

For the arts and voluntary sector organisations we have spoken to so far, working out the new system has been an ongoing learning curve. Some have attended meetings to understand the rationale behind a DPS, wrestled with the online sourcing portal, and eagerly awaited call outs that fit their strengths.

What is clear is there is a bedding-in process is happening for both prison staff and outside organisations using the DPS. The new core Prison Education Framework (PEF) contracts began on 1st April and we hope that once these settle down we will see an increase of opportunities on the DPS, and in the long run the arts and voluntary sector is able to engage proactively.


So far, key challenges for arts and voluntary sector organisations include:

Time frames
There are currently relatively short time frames presented for responding to call-outs for services, which, coupled with no details of when bids will be responded to by, makes planning really tricky. This is especially true for small organisations. One organisation that has been running for over 30 years told us this is the first time ever it hasn’t had any prison projects lined up for the year ahead.

Costing, and working with other funders in partnership
Many organisations in the past have been able to present a reasonably low cost for their activity as they can demonstrate match funding from other sources, such as trusts and foundations. The DPS makes this co-funded approach challenging to explain, deliver and plan for; with both prisons and funders. It has also brought up issues of fair competition and transparency, as different arts and voluntary organisations take different approaches to costing.

In a bid to make the process transparent via an online sourcing portal, useful and long standing personal relationships are at risk of breaking down, which organisations fear may ultimately affect the quality of provision. Many have also found the portal clunky and difficult to use.

Writing specifications and commissioning
Working in this way is a new job for many governors and heads of learning and skills and as a result it is currently happening very differently at different establishments. Arts and voluntary sector organisations are being asked to contribute to writing the specification of specific call-outs, which in many ways takes away the competition and transparency the DPS is meant to be driving. It also raises concerns over intellectual property that may not have been considered.


Those working in the arts and voluntary sector are often the innovators, thinking up new ideas and approaches. But, as yet, we haven’t found many examples (though we would love to hear more of them) where the DPS has provided specifications that enable the sector to do what it does best.

We hope that this can change from an outputs-focused to an outcomes-focused model – and we are happy to work with governors and heads of learning and skills to think up new mechanisms, meaning prisoners can access the best of what is out there.

What now?

Things feel quite precarious at the moment. Prison staff are learning new commissioning skills with little or no time and organisations are waiting long periods to hear back about projects, making it difficult for them to prepare for a future that looks increasingly insecure.

It remains to be seen whether the DPS is a system which, after its initial puzzles, will work to best effect for both prisons and the arts and voluntary organisations delivering services in them. Our network will continue to build on the relationships built up with prisons and their staff over many years to make sure they can use the DPS to best of their ability.

In the short term, it may mean prisoners no longer have the opportunity to access the diverse range of creative projects they once had, but we hope in the long term it can drive excellence and creativity activity to where it’s needed most.

Although it is early days, we very much hope HMPPS is reviewing the use of the DPS to assess whether it is meeting its original aims.

Let us know what you think

Alongside Clinks and the Prisoner Learning Alliance, we want to hear your experiences of using the DPS. Let us know how you found getting on to the system, responding to call outs for services, and what you think the benefits and/or disadvantages are.

Responses will be collated and fed back anonymously to HMPPS.

Please send feedback to trackDPS@prisonerseducation.org.uk by 31st May 2019.

Image courtesy of Elijah Thompson