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

Blog Editor, IOE Digital2 December 2016

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 (more…)

Post 16 GCSE retakes – what have they or the students sitting them actually achieved?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital8 September 2016

Brian Creese. 
If I may be excused a moment of being a grumpy old man, at least when I did ‘O’ levels, we knew what they meant. The top X% got an A (or Grade 1), the next Y% a B and so on. The approach was strictly hierarchical, the exam simply telling you where you stood in the nation compared to all others who sat the exam.
Among many problems with this approach was that results always remained the same and there was no measure of improvement. Politicians wanted to be able to show that they had improved education, and so Margaret Thatcher changed the system to an exam which marked a threshold skill; it measured a proficiency and anyone or indeed everyone should be capable of reaching that level. And so we entered a period of twenty-odd years where education did indeed improve – every single year, as measured by the new GCSE exams. That era came to an end with the ‘hair shirt’ policies of Michael Gove, and for the first time the government’s objective was to see success rates fall. This year’s collapsing success rates for GCSE, particularly in English, once again shows how successful this (more…)

If staff shortages mean prisoners can't reach education, no amount of good practice will help

Blog Editor, IOE Digital3 August 2016

Brian Creese
The large attendance at last month’s Centre for Education in the Criminal Justice Sector (CECJS) conference at UCL Institute of Education attested to the new profile prison education enjoys. It comes on the back of the recently completed Coates Review, soon to be published review of the youth justice system by Charlie Taylor and the Lammy review into racial bias in the system. As we all know, history moves quickly these days, so the question on everyone’s mind was how long Michael Gove would last as Justice Secretary; we soon had the answer…
Even longer ago, a couple of months perhaps, the former Prime Minister made the former Justice Secretary’s prison reforms the centrepiece of a government Queen’s Speech. Where are those reforms now, we ask?
The official answer from our new (and already beleaguered) Justice Secretary Liz Truss is that it is all safe in her hands, but the reality seems to me to be more complicated. I had the great (more…)

Prison reform: has the revolution begun?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital20 May 2016

Brian Creese. 
Wednesday was an exceptional day for all those involved in prison education. The Coates review, Unlocking Potential: a review of education in prison was published and prison reform took centre stage in the Queen’s Speech. After so many years of policy vacuum, apart from measures that served to ensure the inexorable rise of the numbers in prison, this was a momentous occasion. For many in the education world, it is ironic that the hero of the hour is none other than our former Department for Education nemesis, the new Justice Secretary Michael Gove.
But surely his major proposal is simply a rehashing of the academies programme for schools into an academies programme for prisons? If we didn’t like it then, why would we like it now?
This is a reasonable question, and the answer has to do with the starting point. Most local authority schools operate well and many very well. There are few very poor schools in (more…)

What is the point of comparative studies?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital14 April 2016

Brian Creese. 
I was recently complaining bitterly to friends about the refusal of government to actually view any research evidence before embarking on some huge innovation which will disrupt the lives of teachers, parents and children without the slightest idea if it is actually going to work. I was surprised when a highly intelligent, well-informed friend simply shrugged off the idea of evaluations in education, particularly comparative studies. “Too complicated, can’t be done…”
That brought me up short. I admit that much educational research leaves me a bit queasy; I used to squirm when speakers confidently proclaimed that ‘on average’ people with Level 2 numeracy earn £5,000 a year more than those with lower qualifications. While this may well be ‘true’, there is no causal link; if you pass GCSE maths no-one is going to come along and give you a pay rise – though as a result of this you may, in time, achieve higher pay than you would have done otherwise (though again, that is impossible to prove). Untangling the complexities of lives is a constant problem for all involved in social science research.
Comparison studies are  complex in a different way. In the research into the impact of curricula in nine ‘high achieving’ jurisdictions, led by Dr Tina Isaacs and funded by the (more…)

OECD basic skills report makes grim reading

Blog Editor, IOE Digital11 February 2016

Brian Creese
After three years of deliberation, number crunching and further evidence-seeking, the OECD has published its report on the basic skills of adults in England based on the 2012 Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey. It does not make for happy reading, and to save you the misery of trawling through its 110 pages, I thought you might like a brief summary. But you may want a stiff drink before you settle down and read this blog…
An estimated nine million adults of working age have low basic skills.
This is the number of working age adults OECD estimates have poor or very poor literacy and/or numeracy skills and puts England close to the bottom of the OECD rankings. The particular concern for England is that while in other countries standards are improving, in England they are not. The performance of older age groups is as good if not better than the youngest, while in most countries younger cohorts have higher skills than their elders. At every qualification level low literacy and numeracy skills are more common among young people in England than in most other OECD countries. And it should be stressed that these young people are not predominantly school dropouts or the (more…)

FE funding: less bad than feared but still very tough

Blog Editor, IOE Digital4 December 2015

Brian Creese.
You cannot deny the political cleverness of the Chancellor. A week on from the Spending Review people are still shaking their heads at how much less bad it was than they feared. Many are already sitting down to plan the next five years given that, unless those billions slip back behind the sofa again, there is at least some predictability in funding for the sector.
Earlier this week I was sitting round a table with colleagues from BIS, SFA, Niace, UCU, AOC and a range of think tanks looking at where the spending review leaves Further Education (FE). This slightly rosy view, maintained by BIS spokesperson Bobbie McClelland was finally punctured by Gila Tabrizi from UCU, who pointed out the catastrophic cuts in funding suffered by the sector in the past five years, and that even the spending review settlement of funding being ‘protected’ still amounted to a real cut in the adult budget of 8%. Funding for the sector will remain very tough for the foreseeable future.
There was much agreement on the main issues confronting FE at the moment, the extension (more…)

Now we can say something about prisoners’ basic skills levels

Blog Editor, IOE Digital10 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. (more…)

The Holy Grail of e-learning: the quest continues

Blog Editor, IOE Digital23 September 2015

Brian Creese, National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy (NRDC). 
Sometimes something is just too easy. I was really surprised when taking a short break in Valencia earlier this year to discover that the Cathedral there housed the Holy Grail. Here was I thinking that this was one of the great and mythical mysteries of western civilisation and all the time I had simply neglected to look in the right Cathedral. Suffice it to say that despite the great amount of circumstantial evidence provided, I remain somewhat sceptical that the vessel in Valencia Cathedral was actually the one Jesus used at the Last Supper.
I had a similar feeling when I saw a headline on my regular FE News email a few weeks ago, “15 hours of e-learning can increase Functional Skills attainment by 9%”.
Successful e-learning for over-16s in English and maths is something of a Holy Grail for this (and previous) governments. Advocating e-learning is just so tempting. How can we get more young people through English and maths qualifications (more…)

Prisoner literacy levels: a worrying lack of statistics

Blog Editor, IOE Digital16 July 2015

Brian CreeseNRDC (National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy) 

‘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’.
John Bird

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: (more…)