Written evidence submitted by Shannon Trust


About Shannon Trust 

Shannon Trust supports thousands of prisoners each year to transform their lives by unlocking the power of reading.  We inspire and train prisoners who can read, to teach prisoners who can’t. Whilst most of us take reading for granted, for thousands of people in prison, reading a letter from home, considering a job application or looking at a newspaper is not possible until they learn to read.  


Our reading programme is designed to make it as easy as possible for someone struggling with reading to begin to learn and improve their skills. Trained prisoner peer mentors work on a 1-to-1 basis with their learners in short bursts, usually 20 minutes a day, 5 days a week.  Sessions take place in a safe, private space and learners progress at their own pace; there are no exams. 


The reading programme uses Turning Pages, Shannon Trust's reading scheme, specifically designed for adults learning to read. It's made up of 5 manuals and 30 accompanying reading books.  Our nationwide team of staff and volunteers train and support peer mentors in prison, and we work closely with prison staff across the estate to make the Shannon Trust available to anyone struggling with reading. 


50-60% of people in prison are below level 1 in literacy (Brian Creese report, 2015, Bromley Briefings 2019). Level 1 in literacy roughly equates to what would be expected of an 11-year-old. If people in prison don’t have these basic literacy skills in place – the ability to read or write with confidence - they are less likely to engage in other, more advanced education, training or employment initiatives on offer.  To improve access to education, we need to improve engagement at all levels. Shannon Trust seeks to provide a bridge into these initiatives by providing opportunities to develop and utilise these basic skills.  

Why is the Shannon Trust submitting evidence? 

Shannon Trust has 20 years’ experience of teaching thousands of prisoners to learn to read.  As an organisation, we have worked across prisons in England, Wales and Northern Ireland during that time and have seen the benefits of addressing illiteracy, and education more broadly, upon the life chances of prisoners.  With the prison population set to rise over the next decade, and illiteracy rates amongst those sent to prison still high, we are offering evidence to the inquiry to help shape its findings and recommendations, with a view to improving prison education and its impact. 


The learners we target are those who don’t yet have the literacy skills to engage with more formal education, apprenticeships and many forms of employment. Additionally, negative previous experiences of education and other forms of institutionalised provision leave many reluctant to re-engage, or lacking the confidence to ask for help through formal channels. The uniqueness of Shannon Trust provision is that it delivers a proven, alternative approach through trained volunteers and peer mentors which successfully breaks down many of the barriers to learning and opens the door to wider engagement.  


The package of resources (evaluated positively by the University of Birmingham in 2016) we have developed are specifically designed to be delivered through trained mentors rather than specialist teachers and are pitched specifically to reflect the cultural and life experiences relevant to this adult learner group. 


The role of education in prisons 

Whilst education in prison forms part of a prison’s ‘purposeful activity’ offer, its full role goes beyond this. The provision of education, particularly linked to the development of skills, offers offenders the opportunity to choose a different and more appropriate path in many aspects of their life. The acquisition of skills, including the ability to read, enables offenders to maintain links with family, to access services, to apply for and gain employment and make a positive future contribution to society. 


Education plays a central role in reducing reoffending, offering the opportunity to develop the skills and knowledge that can broaden meaningful life choices on release and creating a realistic route out of the ‘revolving door’ of offending behaviour and reduced life chances.  Furthermore, learners report a change in their confidence levels and sense of self, moving from the label of ‘offender’ to become a ‘learner’, ‘student’ or ‘graduate’.   

The timing of the education intervention is, however, critical to success, with a whole-person approach required:  e.g. If someone is struggling with substance misuse or mental health issues, support around these challenges must be considered in the context of a prisoner’s engagement with education to ensure the best outcome for the learner. This requires a whole-prison approach to be successful, with education being integrated across broader prison strategies.  Similarly, consideration must be given to the sequencing of the educational courses on offer – with basic skill provision being followed by more advanced courses, and effective links being made between different educational providers to ensure the pathways between these opportunities are clear and accessible.  


 Our evidence 

  1. The Prisoner Education Trust have demonstrated a link between engagement in prison education and the reduction of reoffending. Not engaging with education can be a missed opportunity and leave a prisoner without the skills to access other opportunities on release. Exiting prison with the same skillset that a person had when they arrived makes it more likely they will remain in the grip of offending. With 50-60% of people in prison below level 1 for literacy, there is a need to ensure access to courses that support the development of basic skills (literacy and numeracy) as a starting point, to enable them to take an active part in education and employment opportunities that reduce recidivism.  
  2. The 2019 Bromley Briefing reported a 12% drop in prison education engagement (2017/18 figures in contrast to 2016/17), with a 13% reduction in qualifications gained. With the prison population set to rise to 98,700 by 2026 this begs the question of what best practice in prison education looks like in a rising prison population, when engagement over recent years has been declining. How will we meet rising demand? 




  1. Digital options are a sensible development and key to improving prison education and its reach. This has become even more clear during the pandemic where face-to-face delivery has not been possible. Education opportunities in prison should reflect what is available in the wider community. Learning via digital means (e-learning, YouTube style videos, vlogs, blogs, webinars, word processing and apps) have been common place in education for several years. By failing to offer this within prisons we are limiting the options available to learners, creating increased demand on face-to-face delivery (teacher time) and restricting the ability of people in prison to improve their digital literacy – vital skills for anyone re-entering society. There are obstacles (security implications, Wi-Fi restrictions, old buildings & wiring, funding etc.) – but ‘digitisation’ is a strategic aim that ought to be prioritised further through extending existing pilots to reverse the decline in engagement and better prepare people in prison for life on release. 


  1. To reverse the declining engagement and meet the increasing demand, there is also an opportunity to enhance the role of the voluntary sector in prison education delivery. A more proactive, structured and targeted approach to facilitating the work of voluntary sector education providers which complement the core education provision is required. When prison education is considered, the focus can often be limited to the PEF provision. The need is broader, and there is an opportunity to focus more on the value already being added by voluntary sector education providers as key players in improving engagement in prison education.  For example, the Shannon Trust provide hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of free services into prison regimes each year. This delivers huge benefits to prisoners and enhances the quality of the regime overall, ultimately producing much wider societal benefit.


  1. With a large number of voluntary sector providers delivering a broad range of educational courses in prisons, offering different interventions at different stages, further benefit could be gained through increased coordination of this provision, to ensure its full value is recognised and that they form part of a more coordinated education strategy. Through increased coordination we can improve partnership working, ensure effective data sharing processes and create clearer pathways, resulting in better outcomes for prisoner leaners.  More can be done to build upon and capture the good work already taking place in this area. 
  2. Future plans for prison education should consider the role of peer mentoring as a means to increase engagement and meet rising demand. As experienced by Shannon Trust, and observed as an area of good practice by the Dame Sally Coates review (2016), a peer mentor approach offers mutual benefit to the learner and the mentor, with both developing skills as a result of this intervention. Shannon Trust mentors report improved self-confidence, personal aspiration, communication skills and empathy as well as increased knowledge of phonics and literacy gained through their mentor training. 
  3. Shannon Trust learners can often be those that have had negative experiences of education growing up – they’ve been excluded from school, entered the criminal justice system at an early age or have had education interrupted through being in care. This negative experience can present as an unwillingness to engage in formal education, unwillingness to go to the library, or a lack of trust in the ‘system’. The informal approach used by Shannon Trust (‘by prisoners, for prisoners’) has shown to help break these barriers and build confidence with learning again. As a result, in 2019 89% of Shannon Trust learners went on to formal education after engaging with peers in this way. Peer mentoring can therefore supplement classroom activity, support a whole prison approach to education, and encourage those with negative experiences of formal education to re-engage. 


  1. On a practical level, access remains an issue for all educational initiatives in prison and facilitating education has to be a priority for all staff. Whilst the ‘whole prison’ approach is a valuable concept, there are many aspects of the wider prison regime which impair the seamless delivery of both the formal education offer and the broader services delivered through voluntary sector organisations. Prior to the pandemic it was common to receive reports of people not being unlocked to attend education or to get to their Shannon Trust mentoring sessions. These are motivated individuals that are engaged and want to learn, but that aren’t able to be unlocked due to safety and regime issues. Barriers include staffing levels, movement restrictions, mentor/learner name not being on the ‘unlock list’ due to error, demands on officer time, a wing needing to be searched, incorrect roll count, gang issues, a lack of space etc. One major regime challenge can be prison lock downs, which can happen more frequently in public prisons than private. This can mean that education delivery in private prisons experiences fewer interruptions to the core day. For engagement to improve, a joined-up approach to security and education needs to be considered to ensure that those who want to learn are unlocked and able to attend. This approach includes a culture change, where education is seen as a priority by all officers and wider staff teams. 


  1. There is a further need to simplify the Dynamic Purchasing System (DPS) to ensure it can be utilised to augment and improve education provision where appropriate.  This would be supported further by ensuring that governors have access to contemporary and rounded information about education services to inform their purchasing decisions.


  1. Incentives support engagement. Where prisoners are financially better off working in the prison workshops rather than accessing education, they are less likely to choose education. Whilst many prisons have changed their policy to ensure no one is financially worse off for electing education, this isn’t the case across the board.  One simple change that could increase the number of people engaging with education is to ensure that incentives support a culture of education. There could be an increased link with IEP (incentives and earned privileges), more celebration events for educational achievements (e.g. Governor giving certificates, friends & family invited), or increased pay. Educational successes could be shared more to raise the status of education amongst staff and prisoners. 



January 2021