Written evidence submitted by the British Society of Criminology Prison Research Network


We at the British Society of Criminology’s Prison Research Network are active in prison research and studies of incarceration. We welcome the opportunity to respond to this call for evidence which asks whether prisoners are being left behind regarding their education. The available evidence suggests that people held in prison have been left behind for many years in terms of their access to meaningful opportunities for education and learning. If anything, the gap is growing due to developments in technology available only in the community and the impact of isolation and confinement of prisoners associated with the pandemic. This response summarises some of our research findings. As recognised by two recent Government reviews, focusing on the adult and child prisons estates respectively (Coates, 2016; Taylor 2016), it is important to make progress in this area. The consequences of low academic skills and achievement for individuals left behind by the educational system are considerable, particularly in a competitive labour market.


This response is structured according to the expertise and research experience of three core members of the Prison Research Network, responding firstly to the Committee’s questions about the value, nature and meaning of education in prison, followed by a deeper look at two ‘specific considerations’ which suggest that both children and long-term prisoners are being left behind within the current provision of prison learning.


What is education in prison for?


Education in prison includes library services, vocational education, cultural activities, social education, physical education, as well as the academic subjects included in narrower conceptions of education (Chalatis, 2016).


The majority of people serving prison sentences in England and Wales will eventually be released back into the community. The average sentence length of prisoners in England and Wales is 19.6 months (Ministry of Justice, 2020), meaning that the majority of individuals in custody are serving sentences of less than two years. With the certainty of eventual release, the idea, in principle, is that those released following a short-term sentence should leave the prison better equipped to negotiate life in the community, not only as law abiding citizens but as people with something positive to contribute. From this perspective, education (in its various forms) plays a crucial role in enabling people find a positive place in society.


In Nichols’ work (2021), serving prisoners, former prisoners and prison staff identified that engagement with educational initiatives has the capacity to create a more stable environment in which prisoners can serve their sentences securely and safely. Additionally, it is vital that, staff whose role it is to ensure that safety, can work in safe and humane conditions that should be expected in modern penal practice. Offender learning policy has in recent times primarily focused on education in prison as a tool for the enhancement of employability prospects on release. This is because employment, for some time, has been recognised as one of the core pathways to reduce reoffending following release (Social Exclusion Unit, 2002). While this has merit, there is an opportunity to open up a discussion on the broader benefits that education in prison can offer.


Prisoners interpret the benefits of education in a range of ways, often citing the ‘soft skills’ that can be gained from such experiences resulting in increased self-confidence. Indicators of change experienced by prisoners who engage with education include identity, confidence, family relationships and attitudes towards society. It should be recognised however that although prison education, and education more broadly, can be a significant factor in personal transformation, release from prison introduces new challenges essential to the desistance process and thus, understanding what education in prison is for must be considered to enable ‘through the gate’ success.


Education in prison can have considerable benefits in the immediate prison context, including:


Education and learning are fundamental to the human condition, inside and outside of the prison context. Effective engagement in high quality courses takes time, necessitates a degree of trust of all involved and requires a certain amount of self-esteem and self-confidence; a quality that is often lacking from many in the prison system. There are many barriers in practice. Behan (2014) makes the case that educational spaces which allow students in prison ‘…to voluntarily engage in different types of learning, at their own pace, at a time of their choosing, can be effective in encouraging prisoners to engage in critical reflection and subsequently, to move away from criminal activity’Warner (2018) further advocates an educational approach which allows the full development of the human personality, offers a variety of learning opportunities and recognizes learners' individualities and capacity to transform their lives.


Specific Considerations


To effectively plan education in prisons, it is essential to recognise the heterogeneity of educational experiences, needs, and desires among carceral populations.  Concomitantly, more attention is required to ensure parity of provision irrespective of characteristics such as age, gender, and ethnicity; a parity which does not yet exist. For example, the Prison Reform Trust (2003: 25) found that the educational offer in women’s prisons - most commonly made up of vocational and ‘life skills’, yet with ‘no discernible academic curriculum’ – was experienced as a ‘nice range of useless things’.


Differential educational experiences also exist at the intersection between age, ethnicity and incarceration. A recent HMIP report found that while people from ethnic minority groups had engaged with educational provision inside, many had experienced ‘disadvantage’ in accessing these, and were ‘dissatisfied’ with their perceived lesser opportunities to engage in learning or skills development (HMIP 2020:9). Further, as the youth custodial estate has contracted over the last decade, the overrepresentation of minority ethnic children, particularly black and mixed heritage children, has become more pronounced (Bateman, 2020).


The following section constitutes a closer look at two specific areas - firstly, that of children, and secondly, those serving long-term sentences.


Specific Considerations (1): Education in the custodial estate for children

There are multiple challenges associated with the provision of education in the youth secure estate and few examples of high-quality provision (Taylor, 2016; Wood et al, 2017). Prior to entry, children sentenced to custody have experienced high levels of exclusion from formal education. Cripps and Summerfield’s (2012) review of findings from two HMIP reviews on the resettlement provision for children and young people and the care of looked after children in custody has documented this. Likewise, the Ministry of Justice (2014) found that ‘86% of young men in Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) have been excluded from school at some point, and over half of 15-17 year olds in YOIs have the literacy and numeracy level expected of a 7-11 year old. Almost one in five (18%) of sentenced young people in custody have a statement of special educational needs' (MoJ, 2014:3).


It is clear that many children in the secure custodial estate are not ‘education ready’ (Bateman, 2016, 2020), due to a range of difficulties in their lives comprising multiple underlying vulnerabilities. There is limited academic research conducted in custodial institutions to understand children’s perspectives on their education. In 2012/13, the YJB instigated a workstream to explore differential access to college education amongst children serving prison sentences. There was inconsistency between different Young Offender Institutions (YOIs[1]) in their use of ROTL[2] to facilitate access to college interviews, for example. There was also found to be inconsistent practices by college staff. Prior to this, YJB identified multiple barriers to future progression in education, training and employment for children serving sentences in the community and in custody (YJB, 2006).


A study on children’s perspectives of their education in prison was undertaken by Little (2015), who surveyed children in a YOI in England using a questionnaire (n = 47), discussion groups (n = 25) and one-to-one interviews (n = 4).  The majority of these children felt they had had the opportunity to participate in educational activities at the prison, but their views about the extent, nature and influence of this participation varied.  In particular, three issues were highlighted:




Those children experiencing some of the greatest barriers were those segregated from the main population.



In addition, lockdown conditions associated with the pandemic have restricted access to classrooms. The research highlighted a role for education delivered in custody to focus on getting children ready for education, training and employment on release.  One child participating in the research, for example, suggested the idea of 'taster courses', to give people choice about what they might want to do more of and ultimately help people ‘to find their own path’. The informal learning opportunity afforded by the Raptor project illustrates this (counter to the typical custodial educational experience) by enabling some of the most vulnerable children move on from negative prior experiences of formal education. This points towards what Warr (2016) has referred to as the need to ‘re-privilege’ informal education provided in custodial settings to support dialogue-based learning which is sensitive to the context in which it operates. If the goal of education is to help individuals become a fully functioning person (Rogers, 1983) then children need opportunities for self-directed, experiential learning in a social context that is not too oppressive for the learner.


Specific Considerations (2): Education in the long-term estate

Beyond protected and individualised characteristics, it is also essential that the educational offer in prisons responds to the diverse range of sentence lengths, and the different needs and challenges that result. For instance, given that women tend to serve shorter sentences than their male counterparts - more than half (57 per cent) spend just three months or less in prison, compared to 35 per cent of all sentenced men (Ministry of Justice, 2018)  –  there is rarely sufficient time for imprisoned women to engage in meaningful educational opportunities, which would be better suited to a community-based model.


Significantly more attention is required in terms of the educational offer for long-term prisoners. For such individuals the purpose and utility of education and learning will necessarily differ and should be catered for. For instance, a recent study of men and women serving life imprisonment for murder, from a young age (Crewe, Hulley & Wright, 2020), found that for some, ‘learning, education and trades’ represented important routes to survival during a long custodial sentence. It was one of the few aspects of life over which individuals had any sense of autonomy, providing a means to modify one’s mood and free themselves (albeit temporarily) from the ‘grip’ of the institution (p.173). It was a means to escape the cell and ‘keep occupied’, and in doing so, ensure that the mind did not ‘wander and fall in on itself’; a strategy of particular import for those who had been party to the death of another, and for whom the minimum period of incarceration often exceeded the years lived to the point of conviction (Crewe et al, 2020). It also offered a means by which individuals endeavoured to ‘put right’ their negative experiences of formal education by finally obtaining long-desired qualifications, or a restitutive opportunity to ‘better’ the self (p.178).


There was also a clear sense in the value of learning for learning’s sake; that as Liebling et al noted, prison education is as much about ‘identity [and] cognitive transformation’ as it is ‘knowledge acquisition’ (p.179). However, such experiences were by no means universal among long-serving prisoners. Many found the learning and vocational courses on offer useful only for ‘passing time’, deriding prison-based qualifications as largely ‘pointless’ in the face of the myriad obstacles to life post-release that were likely after serving in excess of 15 years for murder (p.171). Others struggled with a lack of access to meaningful educational opportunities in the first decade of a long-term sentence, and there was a clear perception that when it came to course provision, ‘lifers’ were always bottom of the list of priorities.




Of the questions set out by the Education Committee in its terms of reference, we have focused our submission on the ‘purpose’ of education in prisons, with a particular focus on the experiences of children and long-term prisoners. We conclude that educational provision in custodial environments could – and indeed, should - achieve a lot more than the current offer, particularly for children and young people. Education provision should seek to enable children and adults to make positive developments in their own lives. Education and learning opportunities – whether through formal qualifications or engaging in informal learning - can play an important part in determining what these developments should be. There is further scope for trusting people in prison to play a part in curating their own learning journey in order to support improved educational and social experiences (see Case et al, 2020).


There are two final critical issues to which we would respectfully draw the Committee’s attention. Firstly, we have not engaged with questions relating to ‘effectiveness’ because of our concerns that what this often relates to is a hollow assumption that ‘an education’ in prison can somehow ameliorate or overcome years of social exclusion, external and internalised stigma, and a lack of opportunities. It is a fallacy to assume that if a lack of formal education has, in part, played a role in an individual’s pathway to prison, that imbuing them with a clutch of qualifications can somehow fix or reverse this process. Secondly, while the provision of meaningful and individually valued learning opportunities – both formal and informal – for imprisoned people should be a given within the current system, we believe that focusing on how to improve education in prison must occur in tandem with a commitment to exploring the enhancement of similar opportunities for criminalised individuals in the community, as well as a pledge to contribute to reducing our national overreliance on custodial sentences.









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January 2021



[1] Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) are prisons for children aged 15-17 years. They are run by HM Prison and Probation Service as part of the wider prison estate. Separately, there are also YOIs for young adults aged 18-21 years.

[2] ROTL is Release on Temporary Licence. It is designed to enable “participation in activities outside of the prison establishment, directly contributing to community resettlement and development of a purposeful, law-abiding life” (HMPPS, 2019) https://www.gov.uk/guidance/release-on-temporary-licence