Select Committee on Education and Skills Seventh Report

2  The Purpose of Prison Education

The purpose of prison education

17. Is education in prison considered to be important? Certainly for many decades in this country the answer has been no. It has been a very low priority for the Government as well as in the mind of the public. However, given that 58% of all adult prisoners, 72% of 18-20 year-old male prisoners, and 85% of 14-17 year-old male prisoners were re-convicted within 2 years of release[1]; that the cost of recidivism to the tax payer is an estimated £11 billion a year1; and that the number of victims of crime as a result of recidivism is also very high, with released prisoners being responsible for at least 1 million crimes per year1, then in these circumstances the importance of reducing recidivism for the wider benefit of society is considerable.

18. Reducing recidivism is achieved through the rehabilitation of prisoners into society and secure employment, giving prisoners a real alternative to crime on release. Education is a key part of this broader commitment to increase the opportunity for the prisoner to choose a real alternative to crime, and therefore reduce recidivism. As Martin Narey, Chief Executive of the National Offender Management Service, told this Committee:

    'I believe passionately that, in the right circumstances, we can reduce criminality and change people's lives, and the major way we do that is through education. I think if we educate people we can change their lives, we can make them employable, we can get them into jobs and we can reduce criminality.'[2]

19. However, the purpose of prison education should be defined not just in terms of its contribution to the reduction of recidivism. It is important to recognise that to provide prison education is important in itself in a civilised society because it is the right thing to do. We should be developing the person as a whole, not just in terms of the qualifications they hold for employment. Education, and the process of engaging in learning, has a value in itself which needs to be recognised. A focus on reducing recidivism without considering the prisoner's right to education more broadly, would not be sufficient.

20. The view of Professor Andrew Coyle, Director of International Centre for Prison Studies, Kings College, London, was:

    'I think there is an argument saying we should provide prison education because it is the right thing to do. I think that is an important starting point, not just in terms of education but in terms of what goes on in prison. It is the right thing to do. That passes an important message to a variety of people.'[3]

21. On our visit to British Columbia, this Committee was shown a system that was entirely focused on the provision of programmes, including education programmes, that were diagnosed to be required for the prisoner's rehabilitation into work. Whilst there seemed to be some advantages to such a well-organised and purpose-driven approach, there was concern amongst academics we spoke to that there was an over-concentration on employment related programmes to the detriment of a broader curriculum in education. It was thought that the benefits of a wider curriculum (including art and drama), that can often be the first step to motivating and engaging a prisoner in learning, had been lost. As a result, it was felt that many of the wider benefits of education in terms of soft skills had also been sacrificed. In describing the goals of prison education Lord Filkin, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State of Children and Families, told this Committee:

    'we ought to have as an object of policy reducing illiteracy and innumeracy for social exclusion reasons as opposed to (just) employment reasons. .. (it is) about almost classic reasons for education, by which I mean that it has a value in its own right in terms of what it does to the individual.'[4]

22. The purpose of education and training in prisons should be to play a key role in improving the employability of prisoners and therefore contribute to reducing recidivism. However, we would wish the purpose of prison education to be understood in broader terms than just improving the employability of a prisoner. We would emphasise the importance of delivering education also because it is the right thing to do in a civilised society. Education has a value in itself and it is important to develop the person as a whole, not just in terms of the qualifications they hold for employment. The breadth of the education curriculum is important and employability skills should not be emphasised to such an extent that the wider benefits of learning are excluded.


23. Having a job makes re-offending less likely, and the right education, training, and work experience can help offenders to gain secure employment on release. As the Social Exclusion Unit found, 'research shows that employment reduces the risk of re-offending by between a third and a half'1. We know that prisoners who do not take part in education are three times more likely to be reconvicted than those that do1. The Forum on Prisoner Education believes that education for prisoners 'can hold the key to living without crime by building self-esteem, encouraging self-motivation, and providing new opportunities after release.'[5]

24. Bobby Cummines, an ex-offender and Chief Executive of UNLOCK, the National Association of Ex-Offenders, told us that:

'Educational training is probably the most important thing you have in prisons today. It is one of the things that will stop people re-offending.'[6]

25. Afrim Mahmuti, a young offender in Feltham Young Offenders Institution told the Committee:

    'I think education is going to help me to stay out of crime. That is what I think, that education helps to educate yourself to help you get out of crime.'[7]

26. It is not just a question of gaining qualifications for employment: education can help the employability of prisoners in other ways. Dr John Brennan, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, said that education provided:

    'the knowledge, the qualifications which will help them not just to secure a job on release but also to equip them to cope with the complexities of the lives they often lead; to give them confidence, raise their own aspirations, shift them away from offending behaviour, to becoming much more productive members of society.'[8]

27. One point must be emphasised, however. Improving the knowledge and skills of a prisoner is important, but is not sufficient to reduce recidivism in isolation of other factors. Encouraging prisoners into education and training can be pivotal to a crime-free future but should be part of a broader package, including help with finding work, maintaining family ties, addiction and behavioural counselling (if necessary) and securing suitable housing.


28. As mentioned above, prisoners who do not take part in education or training are three times more likely to be re-convicted than those who do. It has been calculated that basic skills learning can contribute to a reduction in re-offending of around 12%[9]. Professor David Wilson, Professor of Criminology at the University of Central England, and Chair of the Forum on Prisoner Education, told the Committee:

    '…there is evidence (about the effect of education in prison). That evidence is not particularly well known because this has often been an area which has been neglected. People have not been particularly interested in prison education. But there is evidence. Most of that evidence comes from Canada, and in particular the five years in which the Simon Fraser ran education courses in British Columbia at five jails, and over the course of the number of years that education programme was running there were some 650 prisoners went through the educational programme and the evaluation that was done by Professor Polson from Canada and Professor Duguid from Canada, who looked at the cohort that had achieved in education to see what the predicted rates of re-offending were when they entered jail and then measured that against what had happened when they were released from jail and the predicted rate of re-offending had been reduced by over 30%. So there is indeed evidence to suggest that if you engage prisoners in education you are likely to affect their re-offending when they are released back into the community.'[10]

29. However, Professor Wilson questioned the figures in the Social Exclusion Unit's paper on re-offending:

    'The figures we have got.. come from the Social Exclusion Unit and actually the figures have never really been tested empirically'[11]

30. The Social Exclusion Unit's report identifies a correlation between taking part in education and re-conviction, but we do not know that this is a causal relationship. The impact of education was not isolated from other factors sufficiently for us to conclude that by increasing the skills level of a prisoner to 'x', we will reduce recidivism by 'x'.

31. The Youth Justice Board describes the research base on the impact of different educational approaches on young people at risk of re-offending as 'needing to be improved'. Nevertheless, it describes the most common finding of over 20 years of research to be that young people who participate in custodial education programmes are more likely in later life to be employed and less likely to end up back in custody than non-participants.[12]

32. On balance, the available evidence suggests that education and training can contribute to gaining secure employment, which in turn contributes to reducing recidivism, but more research is needed to isolate the impact of education and training. The Government accept that the relationship between education and recidivism is a complicated one. Mr Martin Narey, Chief Executive of the National Offender Management Service said:

    'The link is a very complex one.. but if we can get offenders into employment and somewhere to live, then the chances of their re-offending radically reduces.'[13]

33. The Government is undertaking research on the impact of its investment in improving the basic skills of prisoners on recidivism. Martin Narey said:

    'I cannot yet give you evidence that the investment we have put into offenders' basic skills is leading to a significant proportion of those individuals committing less crime.'[14]

    'I hope that we will be able to demonstrate it in the next couple of years when we start to get some data from the work we are currently doing. It is very difficult to make categorically the benefits of education to re-offending when you just have control groups.'[15]

34. We urge the Government to give priority to undertaking the necessary research to demonstrate the impact of education and training on recidivism. It is unacceptable that this research has not been undertaken previously. It is essential to the future of prison education.


35. The association between basic skill levels and re-offending is complex and, at best, not yet proven. It is also the case that the relationship between employment and offending is 'neither straightforward nor yet fully understood'.[16] Therefore, for the time being at least, prison education is better justified in terms of what it can offer a prisoner on release, than in terms of what it will prevent a prisoner from doing. Prison education can offer a prisoner secure employment and a real alternative to crime, but it cannot guarantee that a prisoner will not re-commit crime. As Michael Rice described in his summary of his research findings to the Committee, it is 'better justified through human rights than by reference to human wrongs.'[17]

36. Other witnesses agreed with this. Professor Andrew Coyle felt that prison education should be provided because it is the right thing to do (paragraph 20). Professor David Wilson told us:

    '..quite clearly prisoners come from some of the most marginalised sections of our community in which frankly very few of them have level 1 educational achievement, i.e. they have not got the skills of an eleven-year-old in terms of reading and writing. That clearly does affect their chances of being able to gain employment once they are released back into those communities. So if you can actually use prison as a positive experience to counteract some of the very negative schooling experiences they have.., so much the better.'[18]


37. If the purpose of providing prison education rests on its link to reducing recidivism through providing prisoners with a real alternative to crime, then it is essential that we know what type of education provision is going to have the greatest impact. The difficulty is that, at present, very little is known about what works.

38. Since 1998, there has been a heavily concentrated focus on the provision of basic skills training to prisoners. As Martin Narey told this Committee:

39. It is clear that basic skills are of key importance in improving the employability of prisoners. However, the Government's approach of focusing on the provision of particular basic skills qualifications is not evidence based. It is not founded on robust and thorough research but on one finding from the Social Exclusion Unit's report that found that half of all prisoners were excluded from 96% of jobs because they did not have the basic skills required[20]. The statistic was derived from a comparison of prisoner's skill levels to a Basic Skills Agency survey that looked at the skills required for employment. Martin Narey said:

    'When the money began to arrive in 1998, we agreed with ministers an educational strategy for prisons with an emphasis on basic skills and essentially we put almost all the new money into basic skills provision and we redirected some of the money which had been spent elsewhere on education also into basic skills because the primary mover on this - (was) a survey carried out by the Basic Skills Agency, the overwhelming problem in the prison population was that two thirds of them were essentially ineligible for about 97% of jobs advertised in job centres. So.. overwhelmingly, we concentrate on the barriers to employability, so basic skills primarily.'[21]

40. The following table illustrates the considerable increase in funding for prison education that has taken place since 1999.

Source: Forum on Prisoner Education, Briefing Paper No. 12

41. Whilst this Committee welcomes such an increase in investment, it remains concerned that the concentrated focus on delivering particular basic skills qualifications is based on little evidence. Martin Narey told us that existing policy is based on no more than a 'hunch':

    'The research which the Home Office is carrying out in this area is in relation to what interventions can make the biggest impact in terms of reducing reoffending. We are just beginning a five year study that will look at a range of interventions. Education and learning will be one of those interventions that we will seek to measure over time. We have a hunch, that we are backing with substantial resources, that this will lead to greater employability and reduce reoffending but we have to make sure that we have the research results in place that confirm whether or not that is true.'[22]

42. Janice Shiner, Director of Lifelong Learning, DfES, confirmed that evidence was not yet available in the UK to link basic skills and reducing re-offending:

    'If your question is about the impact then—you will not want to hear this—it is early days in terms of the research that will make the link between basic skills and not re-offending.'[23]

43. Whilst the finding of the Basic Skills Agency that half of all prisoners are excluded from 96% of jobs because of a lack of basic skills is an important finding, it is not a sufficient basis on which to determine the provision of education and training in prisons. Firstly, this finding does not imply that providing prisoners with the relevant basic skills qualifications will be sufficient to enable them to gain employment in isolation of other factors. Secondly, it gives no indication of how basic skills training should be provided to meet the needs of the individual prisoner.

44. The Committee has received a great deal of evidence to demonstrate that basic skills are not enough to improve the employability of prisoners on their own. The National Council of Independent Monitoring Boards reported to the Committee that 'while basic skills are essential for employment, they are not sufficient to guarantee a job because prisoners are released without the additional skill and qualifications that are now needed in the job market.'[24]

45. By concentrating on basic skills, the Government is failing to recognise the significance of the low skill—low pay equilibrium that will not help many prisoners to find a real alternative to crime on release. Vic Pomeroy, Head of Learning and Skills at HMP The Verne, told the Committee:

    'Research done by Soskice and Finegold that said Britain was trapped in a low skill equilibrium which is low skill/low pay and if we are to succeed with prisoners we have to move to a medium skilled/medium pay which gets them out of the benefit trap. The only way you get people out of the benefit trap is to give them the ability to earn above the benefit, which is at level three.'[25]

46. Furthermore, the Committee has received a great deal of evidence to demonstrate that the concentrated focus on the achievement of basic skills qualifications, driven by Key Performance Targets that prisons have to meet, has been characterised by a system of 'box checking' and has not allowed prisons the flexibility to identify and meet the learning needs of individual prisoners. We have received a great deal of evidence regarding the advantages of providing a much broader curriculum. This issue is discussed in more detail in paragraphs 230 to 237.

47. We are concerned that existing prison education policy, with its heavy concentration on basic skills qualifications, is based on little more than a 'hunch'. While basic skills are vital, they are not by themselves sufficient to ensure employment on release. We urge the Government to undertake thorough and robust research to identify what type of education and training provision will have the greatest impact on meeting the individual learning needs of the prisoner and providing them with real alternatives to crime on release.

More investment is needed in preventative measures:

48. The majority of prisoners have very poor basic skills, left school before 16, and were regular truants. We know that:

49. The Youth Justice Board also highlights a growing body of evidence that disconnection from mainstream education and training is an extremely important risk factor for offending and re-offending.[27]

50. David Bell, HMI Chief Inspector of Schools, told us:

    'It is a very important point. We know that low educational attainment at primary school leads to poor progress at secondary school, which often leads to truanting, which in turn leads to exclusion, which leads to criminality, which leads to prison. I think we can in one sense track the consequences.'[28]

51. This is an extremely difficult problem to try and tackle by the time offenders are entrenched in criminogenic circumstances[29]. Professor Rod Morgan of the Youth Justice Board told us:

    'young offenders sentenced to custody who have got seven or more previous convictions where from the prison statistics we know that 96% of them are reconvicted within two years, so we are talking about a pretty intractable population.'[30]

52. The evidence creates a very strong case for much greater priority being given to preventative measures; measures that will reduce the number of students leaving school with poor basic skills, reduce truancy, and significantly increase staying-on rates at 16. The Government has sought to address these issues in its response to the Working Group on 14-19 reform.[31] We urge the Government to focus on improving education provision for the almost 50% of students who do not achieve 5 A-Cs at GCSE, and particularly the 5% that leave school without any GCSEs.[32]

53. Our predecessors' report on Early Years[33] demonstrated that, in terms of investing in preventative measures, its is the early years of a child's development and schooling that have the greatest impact on improving their educational outcomes. Evidence from the report demonstrated that the returns on investment were considerable higher in the early years of a child's progress than they were in the later teenage years once a child was already under-achieving. We wish to highlight the importance of the Government's Every Child Matters programme of reform, on which we will be publishing our recommendations to Government shortly.

54. There was some suggestion that the Government should even consider re-directing investment in prison education into early years provision. As Professor Andrew Coyle said to the Committee:

    'The big question, I would think.. is could the £2 billion plus of taxpayers' money which is currently spent on the prison system be better spent on education or elsewhere and would that lead to a reduction of the offending, rather than focusing within the bubble of the prison service? That is really the big question.'[34]

55. We do not recommend such a policy at present. Nevertheless, it something that deserves further consideration in the future.

1   Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Social Exclusion Unit, Reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners, July 2002. Back

2   Q 561 Back

3   Q 4 Back

4   Q 763 Back

5   Ev 1 Back

6   Q 251 Back

7   Q 823 Back

8   Q 270 Back

9   Social Exclusion Unit , Reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners, July 2002. Back

10   Q 4 Back

11   Q 21 Back

12   Youth Justice Board, The National Specification for Learning and Skills for Young People on a Detention and Training Order, 2002. Back

13   Q 562 Back

14   Q 629 Back

15   Q 630 Back

16   Ev 255 Back

17   Ev 255 Back

18   Q 4 Back

19   Q 678 Back

20   Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Social Exclusion Unit , Reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners, July 2002. Back

21   Q 665 Back

22   Q 783 Back

23   Q 745 Back

24   Ev 264 Back

25   Q 901 Back

26   Information provided by the Prison Reform Trust. Back

27   Ev 46 Back

28   Q 422 Back

29   Home Office, The situational and social circumstances that are believed to contribute towards involvement in criminal activity. Criminogenic life circumstances include things such as debt and drug dependency.. The Kirkholt Burglary Prevention Demonstration Project. Crime Prevention Unit Paper 13. Forrester, D., M. Chatterton and K. Pease, 1988. Back

30   Q 110 Back

31   Department for Education and Skills, 14-19 Education and Skills, 23 February 2005, CM 6476. Back

32   See Education and Skills Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2004-05, National Skills Strategy: 14-19 Education, HC 37-I. Back

33   Education and Employment Committee, First Report of Session 2000-01, Early Years, HC 33. Back

34   Q 47 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2005
Prepared 31 March 2005