Missed opportunity – learners in prison need more support with reading

Home > Missed opportunity – learners in prison need more support with reading

24 March 2022

Failing to teach prisoners to read is a massive missed opportunity. Read more about what needs to change.

This week, Ofsted and HMIP published their findings on reading in prisons. It makes a depressing read. They found that:

  • Not enough is done to help people in prison learn to read
  • Provision is too poor in many prisons, and reading is not given enough priority
  • Sometimes people in prison have to choose between education and work
  • People are not always unlocked so that they can go to education classes

The report looks at all aspects of reading in prisons, including assessment, access to classes, curriculum, and teaching. While it is quite critical of the way reading is taught in class, it is important to remember what prison teachers can be up against. Classes can be up to three hours long – way too long for most people, let alone those at the initial stages of learning to read. The resources and materials available are not equivalent to those found in the community and not always appropriate for adults. Learners can’t access the internet and assistive technology is not always available. Classes can be mixed level, which means that it is hard to meet everyone’s needs. And of course, sometimes learners will not want to be there, so tutors have to work hard to engage them in the class.

Ofsted expects to see that learners are taught the fundamental building blocks of English, including reading, and are able to practice this. They also want to see teachers encouraging learners to enjoy learning to read. Ofsted found that training and support for teachers wasn’t always adequate. Some teachers have been trained in other subjects, but moved into teaching literacy classes because the contract has varied.

The report is also clear that the way the current Prison Education Framework (PEF) contracts operate is not helpful, stating,

The way contracts for education providers are used does not incentivise the teaching of reading, because the focus is skewed towards achieving level 1 qualifications.

Gaining level 1 is appropriate and useful for some learners. However, it is only suitable for those who can already read as it focuses on understanding texts. Prisoners who cannot read or who struggle with reading will not be able to access this curriculum, and will not get the qualification. The focus on level 1 course has meant that there are too few classes at entry level and too little ESOL provision.

The report also comments that

It appeared that prisons focused on contractual obligations more than reading needs.

This finding echoes the feelings of many teachers who contributed to our report, Hidden Voices, published jointly with UCU last August. Many teachers felt the commissioning process was detrimental to learners and that they were teaching courses that were inappropriate to their learner’s needs.

But the most disappointing finding is that people with the greatest need often receive the least support. When launching their review into prison education, HMIP and Ofsted talked about lockdown and identified that

Remote learning in prisons was particularly challenging for the high proportion of prisoners with low levels of literacy or SEND, or who speak English as an additional language.

Again, this latest report on reading found that many learners with additional needs had been left without support and that teacher input is necessary for many prisoners.

The White Paper committed to improving literacy, by creating a new Prisoner Education Service, and more specifically establishing a Literacy Innovation Scheme. There is no detail yet on how this will work, and how much funding will be allocated to it. But we hope that this will build on the existing expertise in prisons, including that of many PLA members. This week, the Ministry of Justice published plans for market engagement with potential providers for new education contacts and current plans are that these will be go out to tender in Spring 2023.

Prison education funding hasn’t increased for many years, and remains way below other education sectors. Future contracts need to take account of the extra resources required to assess and engage people and provide additional support. We hope that the new contracts will be adequately funded, offer flexibility and that the monitoring framework will be straightforward and proportionate. The contracts must focus on leaners needs, rather than targets.

HMPPS needs to develop a clear strategic approach to teaching reading, and make sure this is fully resourced. Governors should lead an approach to get prisoners reading for pleasure, purpose and rehabilitation. The report recommends changing the way literacy is assessed, offering a distinct curriculum dedicated to reading, and more training for teachers. Without these changes, people will continue to leave prison without the reading skills they need for employment, education and daily life. It is encouraging that there is Government commitment to literacy – let’s hope the funding is found to match the promises.

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