From education to employment

Ofsted and HMI Prisons: Failing to teach prisoners to read is “huge missed opportunity”. Sector Reaction

prison door

Ofsted and HMI Prisons release: Prison education: a review of reading education in prisons  report.

Failing to teach prisoners to read leaves up to half unable to access vital rehabilitative education while in prison, according to new research by Ofsted and HMI Prisons. Without the ability to read, released prisoners will find it harder to make a successful return to society. 

The joint report, published today, highlights the barriers preventing prisoners from receiving the support they need to learn how to read or improve their reading skills. It finds the reading education on offer in many of the prisons visited by the inspectorates was minimal at best.

The inspectorates found that leaders’ focus was on enrolling prisoners on courses aimed at gaining qualifications, even though up to 50% of the prisoner population could not read well enough to take part. As a result, prisoners who need the most support with education are largely overlooked.

The report finds that, in most prisons, the curriculum is not focused on reading but on practising for exams. Prisoners are not encouraged to enjoy reading, to apply their reading skills across their life, or to read whole books. Many staff did not know how to teach reading. This lack of adequate reading education means that quality support has been left to voluntary organisations or enthusiastic staff members.

In addition, prisons do not have systems in place to identify prisoners’ reading needs or track their progress. In most of the prisons visited for the research, routine phonics screening assessments were not being used to identify the gaps in prisoners’ knowledge and skills, and information on prisoners’ learning was not routinely shared with other prisons.

Today’s report also notes the benefits of prison libraries and how they can encourage prisoners to read. Unfortunately, the use of libraries continues to be severely limited due to practical constraints, such as staff shortages and time clashes with prisoners’ working hours or other education sessions.

In light of the findings, Ofsted and HMI Prisons are calling for reading education to be offered as a distinct part of the prison education programme. Governors should lead an approach to get prisoners reading for “pleasure, purpose and rehabilitation”. This needs an ambitious strategy to improve prisoners’ reading skills, the use of prison libraries, and better systems to assess, monitor and share information on prisoners’ reading ability and progress.

Ofsted Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman said:

“This research shines a light on the reading education that prisoners are getting, or in most cases, the lack of it. There are some serious systemic challenges, as well as plenty of poor practice. Little progress has been made in the priority of education since the Coates Review in 2016. I want Ofsted, with the prison service and wider government leaders, to be part of the solution to this enormous and enduring problem.”

HMI Prisons Chief Inspector, Charlie Taylor said: 

“The failure to teach prisoners to read or to extend the literacy of poor readers is a huge missed opportunity. It means many prisoners do not get the benefits of reading while in prison. And it means that many will fail to learn the essential skills that will help them to resettle, get work and make a success of their lives when they are released.”

Peter Cox, managing director of Novus, said:

“Reading is a fundamental skill and the starting point for learning, yet many prisoners arrive in their cells unable to read due to a host of complex reasons. The biggest obstacle to improving literacy among prisoners is the available budget for prison education, which does not meet need.

“At present, the hourly funding rate for male prisoners is around 17 per cent of the equivalent rate for students in community-based adult education. Prison education has a proven impact on reducing reoffending; according to research by Manchester Metropolitan University, participation in prison education reduces the likelihood of reoffending by around a third. Increasing investment in this vital area would reduce the £18 billion cost of reoffending to society each year.

“As the report acknowledges, education providers are mainly funded to deliver qualifications; for those learners who are unable to read, this starting point is beyond their grasp. Greater flexibility in education contracts would allow providers to deliver a curriculum focused on need, rather than simply delivering qualifications.”

Michael Lemin, Head of Policy, NCFE said:

“We believe that education is the gateway to better life prospects and literacy is a key part of this. There is a greater proportion of learners in prison with additional needs, many of whom are unlikely to achieve a level 2 qualification; a benchmark commonly expected by employers. That’s why we need to support individuals in prison to build up these skills very gradually right from the basics. We need to inspire a love of learning that they may not have experienced at school, and ultimately improve their chance to gain positive employment outcomes when they leave prison.

“We recommend a systematic approach including practical qualifications (from entry level Functional Skills) that can be used in conjunction with appropriate diagnostics to meet prisoners’ personalised learning needs and aspirations.”

Jane Hickie, AELP Chief Executive said:

“We welcome Ofsted’s review of reading education in prisons. However, it comes as little surprise that too many prisoners are currently unable to access the education they need. Evidence shows that helping those leaving prison to access work reduces reoffending rates and saves the taxpayer money. However, without proper access to skills training, there is a high risk of re-offending.

“AELP supports reform to prisoner education. This must include more money for functional skills such as literacy and numeracy – as well the government making good on its promise to change the law to allow prisoners to take on apprenticeships.”

Maxine Bennett, Innovation & Development Director, Milton Keynes College Group, Prison Services

“Reading can be absolutely crucial for the success of a prisoner’s time in custody and upon release, and for non-readers acquiring the skill can make the difference between reoffending and staying out of trouble.  For those prisoners who are unable to read, or who read poorly, so many opportunities are missed, whether it is reading for pleasure, reading to gain a vocational skill or applying for a job upon release.  It is also difficult for prisoners to manage their time in custody without being able to read, as they can struggle, for example applying for education courses or prison jobs.

“Prison Education Framework (PEF) providers are funded mainly by the delivery of commissioned courses and the achievement of qualifications. For those prisoners who are unable to read at all, the barriers are very high for them to get on the first rung of the qualification ladder and progress.

We strongly support the teaching of reading, however we believe PEF providers need greater flexibility and freedom to meet individual prisoners’ needs to improve their reading skills.”

Helena Wysocki, Senior External Affairs Officer at Learning and Work Institute said :  

“Failing to ensure all prisoners can learn to read during their time in prison is a missed opportunity to provide the skills to find employment upon release, maintain good relationships and reduce the chances of ending up back in prison. It’s particularly disappointing that people with the greatest need generally receive the least support with reading. Prisons need to provide better incentives for people to engage in education and reading must have more central role in the prison education curriculum.”

Kelly, a former prisoner, said:

“Not being able to read well, or at all, means that many people in prisons have really limited choices when it comes to their life after release and increases their likelihood of returning to crime.

During my time in prison, I met many women who couldn’t read or write. The things most us take for granted, like being able to read a job vacancy, completing an application form, or writing a CV felt like an impossible task for them.  

I have had the privilege of mentoring people in prison and helping them improve their reading and writing. Seeing one person learn to read and write and turn their life around after being trapped in the revolving door of reoffending, was just amazing. The majority of the prison population will return to society and many of them just want to start a normal life, whether that be starting education, training or employment. We must help the public recognise the value of learning in prison.”

Ofsted and HMIP have long been concerned about the standards of education in prisons and particularly by the number of prisoners who are unable to read. Last September, the inspectorates committed to carrying out a year-long review of prison education, which included this research into reading in prisons.

For today’s report, inspectors carried out 6 research visits to prisons and conducted deep dives into reading, which included observing English classes. Inspectors also interviewed leaders, teachers and prisoners engaged in education, visited the prison library and reviewed curriculum plans and assessment data.

Related Articles