First, the good news. The number of people participating in education in prison increased significantly compared to the previous year. In total 63,744 people participated in a course in prison in 2022-23, an increase of 28% compared to 2021-22. The number of people who participated in a functional skills course (primarily English and Maths, but also ICT and ESOL) during 2022-23 also increased to 28,832. This was an increase of 71% compared to the previous year.
This increase means that participation levels are nearly back to pre-pandemic levels – in 2019-20 the equivalent figures were 67,663 for all courses and 30,168 for functional skills courses.
More people are also making measurable progress. In 2022-23, 19,329 people who took part in a functional skills course achieved a full or partial grade, an increase of 80% compared to the previous year (10,755). While this is positive, it’s worth noting that this means that a third of learners who took part in a functional skills course made no recorded progress at all (at least according to these statistics). For all courses, 54,401 people made measurable progress in 2022-23, compared to 41,344 the previous year.
Similarly, the number of people starting an accredited programme in 2022-23 increased significantly, with 4,820 accredited programmes started. This was an increase of 110% compared to the previous year. There was also an increase of 124% in the number of accredited programmes that were completed in 2022-23 compared to the previous year, up from 1,848 to 4,136.
Given the severe challenges facing the prison system, any increase in the number of people accessing education, and making measurable progress, is good news. Taken alongside a smattering of ‘good’ Ofsted judgements in recent months – after more than a year without any at all – this suggests that prison education is, at least to a degree, managing to get going again post-Covid despite the challenges in staffing.
But challenges remain
However, there is also some less positive news.
Firstly, while participation has increased compared to the previous year, the number of people participating in education is still significantly lower than the peak level in 2014-15, when 101,600 people took a course and 39,300 people took part in a functional skills course.
As this graph shows, the longer-term picture is of declining numbers taking part in education.
Participation in accredited programmes has also decreased, with the total number started by people in prison falling from 19,528 in 2009-10 to 5,726 in 2019-20. Participation then plummeted during Covid before recovering somewhat since, although not yet to pre-Covid levels. For accredited programmes, however, this is largely due to changes in how they are designed and who they are delivered by, with more programmes delivered by the NHS and therefore not captured in these statistics.
Secondly, while more people are taking part in education – and are making some progress – the numbers achieving Level 2 in English and Maths are still low (Level 2 is roughly equivalent to a pass at GCSE and is the highest level qualification routinely available through mainstream prison education). Of the 28,832 people who participated in a functional skills course, only 1,582 achieved Level 2 in English and only 962 achieved Level 2 in Maths.
Similarly, the number of people taking courses at higher than Level 2 remains low, with only 1,960 people participating in a Level 3 course and only seven people taking a course at Level 4 or higher. This data only captures, however, courses provided by the contracted prison education providers, so does not include those people supported by us at Prisoners’ Education Trust or those studying with the Open University or other providers of further or higher education.
Thirdly, the statistics also show that the educational needs of people being sent to prison are, if anything, more acute than ever.
People who arrive in prison complete an initial assessment before they participate in education. In 2022-23, the results of most initial assessments – 68% of Maths assessments and 65% of English assessments – were at Entry Level 3 or below. Entry Level 3 is roughly the literacy and numeracy level you would expect of somebody leaving primary school.
Around one in six (17%) – nearly 10,000 people – were at Entry Level 1 for English, the literacy level normally expected of someone aged 5-7.
While these numbers will sound familiar – low levels of literacy and numeracy among people in prison are a well-known issue – they are worse than in previous years, as this graph shows.
The lower the level of prior educational attainment of people arriving in prison, the more support they will need and the more progress they need to make to achieve Level 1 or Level 2. This puts more pressure on overstretched prison education departments. Furthermore, 28% of people who were assessed during 2022-23 had a learning difficulty or disability (LDD). The actual number of people with a LDD may even be higher, as we do not know how many of the people that were not assessed have a LDD.
A real challenge for new providers
Overall, then, the picture on education provision is of improvement since last year, as prisons continue to recover from the impact of Covid. But longer term, far fewer people are participating in education than they were in 2014-15. This reflects both broader challenges in the prison system and the limited funding available for prison education, with the current Prison Education Framework (PEF) contracts experiencing real terms cuts over their lifetime.
With the tendering process for replacement contracts – due to start from April 2025 – now underway, a key challenge will be ensuring that more people can participate in education and that those who do make more progress. There should also be a broader range of educational opportunities on offer, to enable people in prison to pursue their interests and to progress.
With limited funding available, and the prison population projected to continue to grow, achieving this will be a real challenge for the new providers and for the Ministry of Justice, who must take responsibility for ensuring that the new contracts deliver the improvements that are needed. But it is a challenge that will need to be met if people are going to leave prison with the skills and qualifications they need to thrive.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here