‘When I learned to read at the age of 16 I suddenly got in touch with education, with the chance of becoming a different kind of boy. Not the one always in trouble with the police. But someone who could in the end make the most of myself. Get behind literacy and you get behind social justice and social opportunity’.
So starts the press release announcing the launch of a new campaign from Big Issue founder John Bird to highlight the importance of literacy and education for people in prison called ‘Right to Read (and write)’. The exciting bit for me was that Bird had noticed my continuing complaint about the lack of any real data about prisoners’ literacy and numeracy levels. John’s press release continues:
‘This piece was to continue here with us quoting a quite worrying statistic about literacy in prison. Then we found out that the statistic (which had also been quoted in a House of Commons written answer), was unreliable. More worrying is that many other statistics in this area are the same. ‘Fundamental to providing effective education is to pitch it at the correct level. This has been problematic in England because of a lack of reliable information about prisoners’ educational attainment’, write Jane Hurry and Brian Creese of the Centre for Education in the Criminal Justice System, who are proposing further research to resolve this issue within in this area.’
The prison education system, OLASS – the Offender Learning and Skills Service – costs a great deal of money. According to the latest statistics for August 2014 to April 2015 (provisional) there were 85,100 offenders aged18 and over participating in education during the first three quarters of the 2014/15 academic year. Official figures also inform me that 32,000 of these were doing English and maths at some level. This sounds as if the entire prison population is engaged in education, but this is not actually the case. The ‘churn’ within the system makes it difficult to count learners with any certainty, and while the official prison population is currently 86,164 (w/c July 3rd 2015), the individuals who make up the population shift continually.
If we do not know how many offenders have literacy and numeracy levels below Level 1 (or indeed any other level) it seems to me largely impossible to design an effective system. Government policy initiatives, such as the drive towards getting all post-16 learners to take GCSE English and maths need to take account of the current skills levels. There is also the difficulty of diagnosing special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). A colleague suggested to me that this figure could be as high as 95% of the prison population – but again, how do we know?
There is some good news, however. The National Offender Management Service (NOMS) and the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) recently decided to make initial assessment of all prisoners a mandatory and funded action, with results disseminated through the Individual Learning Record (ILR). Despite the misgivings many of us have about the quality of initial assessment data, this represents an important opportunity to start mapping the literacy and numeracy levels of the prisoner population. We are currently working with Milton Keynes College, one of the four OLASS providers, to look in more depth at a sample of prisons to investigate issues such as: how often an individual has taken the same test and whether or not they are assessed during a period of disorientation immediately following admission, to ascertain what proportion of prisoners are actually assessed and what happens with prisoners who move around the system or in and out of the system.
This research is currently un-funded, but we hope that all four OLASS providers will agree to work with us on this project and that we can gain funding for this work. It will not be a quick process, but if we can continue down this path then perhaps, in a few years’ time, we will be able to provide an authoritative and accurate figure for the levels of prisoners’ literacy and numeracy. In turn this will help us to be able to formulate a prison education system geared to the requirements of this particularly challenging context.
In the meantime, for those interested, I will be holding a workshop on this topic at the forthcoming Centre for Education in the Criminal Justice System (CECJS) Conference, Joining Up Prison Education: integration and reintegration on July 24th. John Bird’s new blog is a short, weekly online publication.