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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Now we can say something about prisoners’ basic skills levels

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 10 November 2015

Brian Creese, NRDC & CECJS
I know it is difficult for some of us educationalists to admit this, but Michael Gove’s arrival at the Ministry of Justice has been a breath of fresh air. He has already instigated a review into education in prisons and its links with rehabilitation, led by Dame Sally Coates and seems ready to examine alternatives to the current policies of high incarceration.
My own contribution to the Coates Review will be my recently completed report on prisoners’ literacy and numeracy levels. In my view, this information is much needed. The last survey of prisoners’ basic skills was 15 years ago, and the comparisons with the general population were flawed. This incorrect and out of date understanding of prisoners’ skills, together with the press’s desire to discuss adult literacy levels in terms of reading ages, has dominated discourse in this area for too long.
So, we decided it was time to take a fresh view. You can download our report, “An assessment of the English and maths skills levels of prisoners in England”, here.
We have been assisted in this study by the (very welcome) decision to require prison education providers to conduct literacy and numeracy assessments on all new prisoners. Working closely with the four prison providers, Novus (formerly the Justice Division at The Manchester College), Milton Keynes College, Weston College and PeoplePlus (formerly A4E) we have been able to obtain just over 120,000 English and maths assessment results from all new prison entrants for the year August 2014 – July 2015.
We have used the 2011 Skills for Life Survey as a benchmark for the literacy and numeracy skills of the whole population. This was a national survey published by BIS in 2012 which used very similar assessment tools and identical educational levels, so allowing an accurate comparison. There are plenty of caveats, of course, in particular that although all the providers have used the same initial assessment tool, there is no consistency in how or when it is applied, and it is difficult to ensure local conditions are similar in all prisons across the country. Nevertheless, I think we can make some general assertions with reasonable certainty. Here are a few:
• Prisoner literacy levels are very poor compared to the general population. In the general population 85% have literacy skills at either level 1 or level 2 whereas in prison this is only 50%, a 35% shortfall.
• Compared with the non-custodial population, prisoners’ numeracy skills are reasonably similar, with only the inevitable fall off at level 2.
• Just as in the country at large, female prisoners tend to be better at literacy than male prisoners, while male prisoners are better at numeracy than female prisoners.
• Looking at literacy and numeracy by gender against young offenders (those in Youth Offending Institutions) those in YOIs have better literacy and numeracy skills than the adults.
• Prisoners in category C and D prisons have better basic skills than those in category A and B prisons.
• Prisoners are given an opportunity to self-diagnosis of any learning difficulties and disabilities (LDD). About 30% of male prisoners declare some LDDs compared with 50% of females prisoners.
This is only a start on what is likely to be a long term research study. So far this is a snap shot from one year, and we need to understand further the local context of different prisons. Further details will be published in the ILR database, and CECJS and NRDC hope to be in a position to do further in-depth analysis of the figures and further refine our knowledge of this difficult education sector.

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