Select Committee on Education and Skills Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Prison Reform Trust (PRT)

    "Education is an important factor in reducing re-offending. The work we are doing in our prisons to rehabilitate, educate and prepare offenders for their return to society is critical in providing them with an alternative to crime" DfES/PLSU, 2003

  Prison Reform Trust's submission highlights these key points:


  The poor levels of attainment realised by many prisoners is well documented and yet just under a third of the prison population is attending education classes at any one time. (Braggins J and Talbot J, 2003) Recent research is helping to clarify that poor educational skills are not just about a lack of education, although the effects of school exclusion and non-attendance should not be underestimated, but is also due to many prisoners experiencing learning difficulties and learning disabilities.

  In his report, The Incidence of Hidden Disabilities in the Prison Population (2005), Rack suggests that 20% of the prison population has some form of hidden disability[16] that "will affect and undermine their performance in education and work settings". Further research reported in the July 2006 edition of Community Care suggests that up to 7% of the prison population is learning disabled and a further 23% of prisoners are "borderline".

  While initial screening of prisoners at reception into prison or during induction may highlight problems, such testing is not systematic (Murphy et al, 2000) nor are the tools used specific enough to identify learning disabilities or learning difficulties (Williams and Atthill, 2005). If prisoners' learning difficulties and learning disabilities are not properly identified then it is less likely that the most appropriate support will be put in place and their ability to access a range of activities and programmes across the prison will be reduced.


    —  Systematic screening and diagnostic assessments should be undertaken and education staff should be trained to undertake such screening and assessment.

    —  Prisoners with learning difficulties and learning disabilities should receive additional support from Special Education Needs Co-ordinators (SENCos), not just in relation to education classes but also to assist them in accessing the rest of the prison regime.

    —  More places should be made available for prisoner education—see also "A whole prison approach to learning".


    "There is a mismatch between literacy demands of the programmes and the skill level of offenders. This was particularly significant in speaking and listening skills" (Home Office Findings 233, 2004).

  The report goes on to make a number of recommendations including the need for literacy support and assessment and adapting training materials to make them accessible for the participants.

  Offending behaviour and other programmes for example, substance misuse, are generally accessible for people with an IQ of 80 or more. Offenders with literacy skills below Level 1 will struggle to cope. There is an adapted sex offender treatment programme for prisoners with an IQ below 80 but this is not readily available across the prison estate and other behaviour programmes have not been adapted in the same way.

  For reasons of health and safety, being able to read is often a pre-requsite for being allocated a job in prison.


    —  Prison regimes should be made accessible for all prisoners regardless of educational attainment or ability. This is in keeping with the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act and the duty of equivalence placed on prisons. Support to make this happen is readily available from a range of statutory and voluntary organizations, for example the Valuing People Support Team, MENCAP, the National Autistic Society, the Disability Rights Commission and Dyslexia Action.

    —  The Prison Service must ensure that prisoners, unable to progress their sentence due to ineligibility to engage in offending behaviour programmes, should not be held in custody for longer periods than more able prisoners who can undertake such programmes. This form of disadvantage would breach not only the Disability Discrimination Act but also the Human Rights Act.


  For many prisoners previous experience of "education" will have been an unhappy one. Persuading them back into the classroom will not be easy. The length of waiting lists for vocational courses in prison speaks volumes. Prisoners will often see the value of a practical qualification they can use on release, feel less intimidated by the "non-classroom" environment while at the same time their literacy and numeracy skills increase "by stealth".

    "The cut of 50% in recent years in the provision for training in the construction trades reported by the Government's Social Exclusion Unit seems nothing short of perverse." (Ron Dearing, 2002)

  Opportunities for learning do not begin and end in the classroom and, especially for those prisoners who actively want to avoid "education" should be pursued. The following recommendations are taken from the report, "Wings of Learning: the role of the prison officer in supporting prisoner education" (Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, 2005)


    —  A whole prison approach should be adopted towards encouraging and supporting education and training for both prisoners and staff. Learning should not be compartmentalised, beginning and ending with teachers in the classroom. Learning should be part of a continuum in which prisoners, education staff, officers and relevant others are involved in working towards a common goal.

    —  The broad range of learning opportunities available to prisoners both through formal curriculum and informally through a variety of activities and officer interventions, should be clarified and properly identified within a single prison learning framework.


  Despite improvements made by DfES working with the Prison Service, many of the concerns raised in PRT's oral evidence to the Committee remain. It is fair to say that most prisons struggle to provide enough constructive activity.

  Prison overcrowding, and the damaging "churn" from one overcrowded establishment to another, has worsened with the result that it is increasingly difficult for prisoners to complete education and training courses. Currently sentenced young men serve an average of just 10 days at Feltham prior to transfer to Castington or Hollesley Bay. PRT's advice and information service has also received complaints about missing files and the poor transfer of information between prisons. Only limited use has been made of the prisoner learning passports whereby prisoners could carry their own records. Prisoners' pay differentials between learning and skills and work also continue to act as a disincentive.

  PRT remains concerned about the low level of prison officer training and its short duration (eight weeks). This, and the continuing movement of governing governors, reduces stability and makes it difficult to create a learning environment.


    —  Government must act across departments to reserve prison for serious and violent offenders. If this were achieved resources would be released to develop more effective regimes for those who should be in custody.

    —  A review of prisoners' education from the prisoner's perspective should be undertaken, identifying blocks to learning and local and national solutions, following the PRT review in 2003.

    —  Examples of peer support work and mentoring by prisoners should be disseminated and built on.


  1.  Time to Learn: Prisoners Views on Prison Education, Prison Reform Trust, Julia Braggins and Jenny Talbot, 2003.

  2.  The Incidence of Hidden Disabilities in the Prison Population, The Dyslexia Institute, Dr John Rack, 2005.

  3.  An introduction to learning difficulties and disabilities in prison, Prison Reform Trust, Judith Williams and Catherine Atthill, 2005 (unpublished).

  4.  An evaluation of the literacy demands of general offending behaviour programmes, Home Office Findings 233, Karen Davies et al, 2004.

  5.  Wings of Learning: the role of the prison officer in supporting prisoner education, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, Julia Braggins and Jenny Talbot, 2005.

December 2006

16   Including dyslexia and related specific learning difficulties such as dyspraxia and dyscalculia, attention deficit disorder and the milder end of the autism spectrum. Back

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