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Education in Prisons

Dame Sally Coates’ review of prison education was published recently and I’d like to add some thoughts. Having spent fourteen months working in the pre-release unit of a large men’s prison, I come to this with huge respect for the fact that prisons are complex environments in which to achieve almost anything.

Most of what interested me is in Chapter 3: “A personalised and inclusive approach to learning” and I want to discuss the disconnection between recognising the huge proportion of prisoners lacking basic skills and a vision for improvement which seems to marginalise these exact learners.

Fact 1: A great many prisoners need to improve at a very basic level.

3:6 A greater proportion was assessed on reception as having English and maths levels at Entry Level 1-3 (equivalent to primary school) as opposed to Level 1 and 2 combined (GCSE Level)…

The reference is to this document, source of the figures illustrated below.

The stats for English at Entry Levels 1 & 2 mean that:

  • well over 15 thousand people entering prison tested below what we would expected of a 9 year old.

When you add in Entry Level 3:

  • 37 thousand, more than half those assessed during the year, had English levels below what we would expect of an 11 year old.

It’s common in literacy circles to say that GCSEs require a minimum reading age of 11, so that puts all those people out of reach of a high school qualification.

prison literacy rates

Fact 2: The review seems to marginalise the needs of thousands of the most vulnerable learners.

3:17 There was overwhelming support from our call for evidence for more embedded learning, with basic skills taught as part of workshops or industry…

Embedded learning is a wonderful way to practice existing skills, but the numbers above suggest that many prisoners don’t have the basics to get anything out of embedded learning. They need foundations on which to successfully build practical lessons and there doesn’t seem to be a plan for them to get those solid foundations of reading and spelling, (or counting and adding, for that matter).

It’s wonderful to say, let’s teach literacy in the context of a vocational settings. I love the idea, but it’s abandoning responsibility for actually teaching reading – not just practicing it. Who would want to practice something they have never learned? Over the years, I’ve encountered too many young men kicked off vocational courses for discipline issues when they were only trying to cover up a lack of basic literacy skills. Embed the practice, but have a clear plan for teaching the basics in the safety of a one-to-one setting where fast progress will enable full and confident participation in vocational settings.

3:20 The use of peer mentors to teach basic literacy and maths as well as to encourage learning in general is an excellent way to support learners who may not be ready for the classroom.

When “basic literacy” is mentioned, it’s usually in the context of being delivered by untrained peer tutors – other prisoners with a higher level of literacy. I know that works sometimes but surely that’s not enough when the numbers needing basic literacy help are so large. “Not ready for the classroom” probably applies to most of those 15,000 whose English is less than that of a 9 year old.

Every one of those weaker readers needs an hour of one-to-one time (or more) per week with a well-trained and experienced person, be it teacher, TA or volunteer mentor. They need a method which moves them on quickly and ensures they’re always exceeding their own expectations – an antidote to previous negative experiences of feeling like a failure in education. They need credit for non-accredited learning and they need to be given the authority to assess their own progress, not just pass a written test.

Make use of interview rooms for one-to-one sessions, find existing volunteers who might want to take on the training and boost capacity, make a huge push towards every single prisoner making gains in their reading and spelling. That’s when embedded education will come into its own.


3.12 Education must do more than simply address deficits in basic skills. Prisoners must be offered a learning journey and encouraged to take responsibility for it. The best way to incentivise prisoners to learn is to deliver education in an engaging way that makes sense to the learner, and enables meaningful progress.

I can’t agree more as long as it boldly and imaginatively includes prisoners who are addressing the deficits in their own basic skills and provides the kind of learning where students can sense their own progress and feel in control of where they’re going in education. It’s why basic literacy, available outside the classroom, still needs to be part of the system, part of the funding, and part of a culture change for prison education.

(The whole review, “Unlocking Potential, A review of education in prison” can be found here.)



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