Inspectors find ‘enormous and enduring’ failures in prison education

Education and prisons inspectors joined forces to criticise the quality of reading education for prisoners and the found most in need are overlooked.

Education and prisons inspectors joined forces to criticise the quality of reading education for prisoners and the found most in need are overlooked.

22 Mar 2022, 11:02

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Poor reading education at prisons is an “enormous and enduring problem” Ofsted’s chief inspector has said as a new review by inspectors finds reading education at prisons is “minimal at best”.

Ofsted and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) carried out a joint review of reading education in prisons- the results of which were published today

Inspectorates sought to understand how prisoners’ reading is assessed, what provision is in place and how much progress prisoners make.

Inspectors found that reading education is not given sufficient priority in the prison regime and that much education provision was not organised in a way that supports prisoners to improve their reading. 

According to the report the curriculum at prisons was not well designed to improve reading and that prisoners with the greatest need to improve their reading generally received the least support.

“This research shines a light on the reading education that prisoners are getting, or in most cases, the lack of it,” said Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Ofsted. 

“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.”

Last September, the inspectorates committed to carrying out a year-long review of prison education, which included this research into reading in prisons.

Ofsted jointly visited six prisons to carry out the research. Its findings are based on interviews with senior prison leaders, leaders in the education department, teachers, librarians, prison officers and prisoners. 

The regulator reviewed curriculum plans and assessment data, visited classrooms, education departments and prison libraries, and spoke to prisoners in their residential units. 

“Our study highlights the systemic barriers that prevent prisoners from receiving effective support to acquire or improve their reading skills,” Ofsted said. 

Inspectorates found that leaders’ focus was on enrolling prisoners on courses aimed at gaining qualifications, even though up to 50 per cent 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,” Ofsted said in a statement. 

Ofsted said that in most prisons, the curriculum is not focused on reading but on practising for exams and prisoners are not encouraged to enjoy reading, to apply their reading skills across their life, or to “read whole books”. 

The report goes on to say that 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,” Ofsted said. 

Inspectorates also found that prisons do not have systems in place to identify prisoners’ reading needs or to 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.

“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,” said HMI Prisons Chief Inspector, Charlie Taylor. 

“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.”

Concerns were echoed by others across the sector.

Peter Cox, managing director of Novus, a provider that delivers education, training and employability services to offenders across the UK, said that reading is a “fundamental skill” and the starting point for learning.

However, he noted that many prisoners arrive in their cells unable to read. 

“The biggest obstacle to improving literacy among prisoners is the available budget for prison education, which does not meet need,” he said. 

“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.” 

Cox called for increasing investment, which he said would reduce the £18 bn 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,” he added. 

Francesca Cooney, head of policy at the Prisoners’ Education Trust said the report highlights that prison education is “not good enough and is not the priority that it should be across the prison system”.

“If people leave prison unable to read then we have missed a key chance to help them get a job and turn their lives around.

“The most concerning finding is that learners with the highest level of need receive the least help,” Cooney said.  

She argued that supporting learners to read must be a higher priority for prisons and the Ministry of Justice.

“They must focus on reading needs, not just on contractual targets. Funding for prison education must be increased and prison teachers must have more support and training, so that every prisoner gets a high quality education that meets their specific needs,” Cooney added.

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