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What works in prison education?
Jon Collins of the Prisoners, Education Trust reviews the evidence on prison education for the Clinks Evidence Library.

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Does prison education work?

Yesterday (12 February 2024), Clinks published the latest article in its online evidence library which I am lucky enough to curate. The evidence library was created to develop a far-reaching and accessible evidence base covering the most common types of activity undertaken within the criminal justice system.

The latest addition has been written by Jon Collins, chief executive of Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET), the UK’s leading prison education charity.

No-one disputes the importance of prison education. But does it help people turn away from crime and live personally fulfilling lives? And what are the key elements which make for ‘good’ prison education.

The evidence review looks at:

  • The educational needs of people in prison
  • The current state of prison education
  • The evidence base for the effectiveness of prison education
  • Critical success factors for high quality prison education.

Educational needs

The review starts by summarising the latest data on the educational needs of people in prison. The latest available data shows that 68% of maths and 65% of English initial assessment outcomes were at
Entry Levels 1-3. Entry Level 1 is broadly equivalent to the expected levels at age 5-7, Entry Level 2 to levels at age 7-9 and Entry Level 3 to levels at age 9-11. In other words, two thirds of people in prison have only reached primary school levels of achievement in the core subjects of English and Maths.

MoJ data also shows that 28% of prisoners who took an initial assessment had a learning difficulty or disability (LDD) confirmed through a LDD assessment; a figure which is universally accepted to be a significant under-estimate.

The declining quality of prison education

HM Inspectorate of Prisons and Ofsted, who have responsibility for inspecting education provision within prisons in England, have expressed significant concerns about the quality of mainstream education in prisons. For example, Ofsted has said that,

“Every year we report that it [prison education] is the worst performing sector we inspect. If anything, it has become worse still.”

While this won’t be a surprise to many readers, the speed of decline is of real concern and is demonstrated by the chart below which shows Ofsted ratings on a yearly basis.

Evidence review

There is a now a significant body of evidence focused on assessing the effectiveness of providing education to people in prison. The majority focuses on the impact on reconviction rates and on the chances of securing employment on release, and is broadly positive. The review acknowledges that most of this evidence is from the US, but helpfully looks at the three main studies of prison education in England and Wales in detail.

Although we need more robust evidence on the key components of high quality prison education, we do have some indications of key enablers to good quality delivery which include good partnership working between the provider and the prison and the flexibility of the provider and the prison, particularly their willingness to adapt processes to support more effective delivery of learning. Barriers to effective delivery include limited resources and funding rules and processes that were viewed as inflexible or insufficiently tailored to a prison setting.

In relation to literacy and numeracy provision, other factors identified included having processes in place to support attendance, having an encouraging learning environment, the importance of engendering learner motivation, and addressing challenges created by the prison regime (for example three-hour sessions, structured around regime timings, were too long for many learners).

Both the Prison Reform Trust and PET have asked prison learners what would improve prison education. Key factors included:

  • the narrowness of the curriculum and the problems caused by differences in curriculums between prisons, 
  • the need for more personal choice, 
  • the importance of pay for education being the same as for work,
  • problems caused by inflexible prison timetables and the potential for evening classes, 
  • the importance of prison officers’ attitudes to education (whether positive or negative), 
  • The ethos of education departments was also seen as important, with learners valuing the studious atmosphere and being treated as ‘a student, not a criminal’. 
  • better access to information and communication technology, the availability of better resources in cells and more books
  • The importance of learning mentors and of supportive, encouraging and motivational tutors and learning support staff.

This list is an important checklist for those involved in prison education. Going forwards there is a need for more research to drill down into the process and to identify specific needs for minoritised communities and those with learning difficulties.

 

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here

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