Prisoners’ basic skills: what happened to the Government’s commitment?

Brian Creese. 

The pace of academic publishing is something most researchers accept, but I’m sure that others feel, as I do, that the excitement of having findings published seems slightly historical as their research has moved on. Or in the case of prison education, everything has moved on. So delighted though I am by the publication of my article on prisoners’ basic skills levels I thought this might be an opportunity to outline developments since this was written.

A year ago, when I posted my initial report on prisoner basic skills, the world of prisoner education was very upbeat, even expectant. The surprise appointment of Michael Gove as Minister of Justice appeared unexpectedly positive. The Coates commission was collecting evidence and would subsequently come up with a series of recommendations which would win almost universal support from those working in prison education. Prisons were mentioned in a Queen’s Speech for the first time in decades and the topic of ‘prison reform’ was on everyone’s lips… Then came Brexit, Gove’s failed leadership bid and the emergence of a new Government, a new minister, a new set of priorities.

The Coates reforms, while still theoretically government policy, look ever more fanciful in the light of a continued lack of resources. Whenever I speak with colleagues from the education providers the story is the same: empty classrooms and teachers with no-one to teach as prisoners remain locked up for 23 hours a day. In many of our prisons, education has effectively come to a halt. Most working inside prisons agree that further disruption along the lines of recent disruption at HMP Bedford is inevitable. Talk of reform has been replaced by talk of crisis.

However, I remain firmly rooted in the year 2014/15. Having used the data provided by Novus, Milton Keynes College, Weston College and People Plus to create the first snapshot of prisoners’ basic skills, I embarked on the long, slow process of gaining access to the Independent Learner Record (ILR) database. This took a remarkable length of time, but eventually we were given access and with my colleague Olga Cara, we have been filling out that initial report with details from the ILR. We decided to concentrate on two areas: confirming the skills levels we found in the initial report and looking at the detail of what education prisoners went on to participate in, specifically English and maths functional skills. Our report is almost finished and we hope to publish it in the next few weeks, but we are able to provide considerable detail as to the progression followed in prisons.

Firstly, I am delighted (and relieved) to report that the fuller data available on the ILR confirms all the conclusions reached in the article mentioned above. However it also tells us just how many prisoners do not have a recorded initial assessment, some 50,000 of them. The ILR allows us to map the level of educational provision prisoners enrol on and how closely this follows the initial assessments. As suspected, far fewer appear to enrol on Level 2 courses than we would expect. However, it is also clear that the success rates for prisoners on functional skills qualifications are excellent, certainly any general further education college would be delighted to see these sorts of pass rates.

The negative story, however, is of how many prisoners do not engage with functional skills qualifications. The high proportion is for those who assessed at Entry level 2 in English where 25% went on to enrol on a English functional skill qualification (any level). All other groups have even lower participation.

Our conclusion is that prisoners who do engage with the prison education system do well from it, but far too many do not engage, for a variety of reasons. And this, remember, was in the heady days when there were sufficient staff to take prisoners to education. It is hard to believe that a similar study on the current cohort of prisoners will find things much, if at all, better.

Brian Creese is co-director the Centre for Education in the Criminal Justice System. ‘An assessment of the English and maths skills levels of prisoners in England’ appears in the London Review of Education (UCL IOE Press)

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Posted in Further higher and lifelong education

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