Written evidence submitted by Prisoner Learning Academic Network

1. About the Authors

This submission has been prepared by Dr Morwenna Bennallick (School of Social Sciences, University of Westminster) and Dr Kirstine Szifris (Policy and Research Evidence Unit, Manchester Metropolitan University). We are chair and vice-chair of Prison Learning Academic Network and have researched extensively in the field of prison education, taught in prison education departments, and worked closely with providers and practitioners in prisons. Our evidence draws on these varied experiences and represent our own views. 


2. Introduction

The Committee’s focus on education in prison is welcome. Education in prison is often hidden from wider educational debates and the questions the Committee raises are both timely and relevant. Our central contention, reflecting a large body of research evidence, is that education in prison can have a profound impact on individuals. We focus on two questions highlighted in the call for evidence; the purpose of education and the issue of existing data. However, throughout our submission we also refer to challenges specifically faced by longer term prisoners, another question posed by the committee. 


3. Summary

A very brief summary of our following arguments is as follows:

  1. There is a need to ensure that the purpose of prison education is viewed holistically and encourages individual aspirations. 
  2. Meaningful progression should be at the heart of prison education delivery.
  3. A model of desistance is helpful in understanding the relationship between prison education and identity and the mechanisms that allow individuals to use education to shape their future. 
  4. Whilst research conducted to date offers a rich repository of information, evidence is still lacking particularly for large-scale, long-term research required to understand the true impact of education in the lives of people in prison. 


4. Purpose of education (in prison)

The purpose of education is to provide opportunities for individuals to grow and develop as human beings. Education in prison should maintain this purpose. In breaking this purpose down further, a useful starting point can be found in the Ministry of Justice’s own current definition, which defines prison education as:


‘Activities that give individuals the skills they need to unlock their potential, gain employment and become assets to their communities. It should also build social capital and improve the well-being of prisoners during their sentences’ (Ministry of Justice, 2017)


Grounded within the recommendations from Dame Sally Coates and her 2016 review - and with particular influence from the Prisoner Learning Alliance ‘Theory of Change  (2016) - we support this definition for largely recognising a multitude of the benefits of prison education.


Nonetheless, there are a number of narratives that are repeated in policy which we would like to address below. Our central points are:


4.1 ‘Unmet needs’ (deficit model) vs inspiring aspirations (aspirational model)


Many people in prison have been repeatedly failed by educational institutions in the community (See for example Graham, 2014). There is a general consensus that many entrants to the prison system have lower educational levels than the general population (see for example, Creese 2016). It is also the case that many people in prison have had particularly negative experiences of education in the community including a higher rate of school exclusion (Williams et al, 2012). The impact of these experiences can be wide-ranging, far beyond the absence of qualifications.


However, there are a range of problems with the data regarding educational levels of people in prison. For example, much of this data is collected on entrance to prison, or on first participation in education (in the case of mandatory assessment data). There are an increasing number of prisoners serving longer sentences (MoJ 2020). This population will be underrepresented in this data, and their proportionate learning needs distorted, in a sample which focuses on entrants to the system. The data is therefore likely to include more prisoners on short term sentences (Creese, 2016). These are often ‘revolving door’ prisoners and are more likely to be characterised by a number of distinct learning and wider social needs, different from the longer term sentenced prisoner (Anderson and Cairns, 2010). 


So, although there is unmet educational need in prisons at the lower levels - and prison education should certainly respond to this - restricting the purpose of education to meeting these needs creates a damaging focus on individual deficits and not the full potential of the person (Bennallick, 2019). Importantly, there are many people entering prison who are already above these educational levels. There are also many who reach higher levels whilst in prison, particularly those on longer sentences, all of whom may be excluded from a deficit approach to understanding the value of education (Prisoners Education Trust, 2013).


By ensuring that the purpose of education in prison shifts to an aspirational model - closely linked to features of the desistance approach outlined below - clear, embedded and accessible progression routes, both within and beyond custody, become central to fulfilling the purpose of education. This requires:



4.2 Beyond employability


Current trends of education policy (broadly) focus on employment and skills and this is particularly true in prison education where it is often also linked to rehabilitative or ‘reducing reoffending’ outcomes. There are a range of problems with this perspective. 


First, a narrow focus on employment and skills is exclusionary to a number of people in prison. Older people in prison are one of the fastest growing populations and so is the increase in people of retirement age (for whom post-release employment is not relevant). For the increasing number of prisoners serving long  sentences, the focus on skills and ‘employability’ which is directed towards a post-release life may be substantially less relevant. Those in ill health, with disabilities, with caring responsibilities on release and with addiction issues may all benefit from education but can be excluded from a narrow focus on employability.


Second, the provision of low level courses and a narrow concept of employability is unlikely to be enough to address the numerous barriers to successful employment.  Whilst addressing  literacy levels is important, this is unlikely to be sufficient, particularly when we consider the number of other social factors that face this particular population.  Issues of housing, additions, learning disabilities can all impede employment  (see for example Brunton – Smith and Hopkins, 2014; SEU, 2002).


As such, we would encourage progression routes in education to be closely linked to meaningful employment opportunities. This includes relationships being built as part of in-prison delivery and situated within an aspirational model of encouraging progression. In the section below we outline a case for the purpose of prison education to be grounded within a personal development, growth and desistance framework.


4.3 Personal Development and desistance


Within prison education literature, a variety of scholars have argued for the use of a broad curriculum within prison that will address the ‘whole person’ (Gehring 1997, Duguid, 2000, Behan, 2007, O’Donnell 2013). They warn against the narrowing of education to fit the current penal policy agenda, arguing that prison education is most effective when it closely follows the principles of adult education. This includes providing space for self-directed study, focusing on developing the whole person, and seeking to instil enthusiasm for a subject within the learner (see, for example, Behan, 2007). 


The experience and meaning of engaging in education whilst in prison relates directly to the prison and the prison experience. As Anne Reuss (1999) has argued, education can act as a refuge within the prison. Others have described education as having a different ‘emotional climate  for prisoners  (Crewe et al., 2014) where prisoners can engage in mutual support (Casey et al 2013). Yet others have demonstrated that education relieves the boredom of prison life (Hughes, 2009) which can help prisoners cope with the challenges of the environment (Maruna, 2010). Furthermore, research has shown that education can lead to better self-understanding, encourage self-reflection, build confidence, and develop a sense of self-worth by providing opportunity to discover talents (Hughes, 2012, Maruna, 2010). In this sense, prison education departments stand apart from the rest of the prison environment. Rather than focusing on the negative – for example, assuming a prisoner is ‘broken’ and requires ‘fixing’ – prison education focuses on the prisoner as a person and a learner (Costelloe & Warner, 2008). Teachers are seen as being separate to the prison regime and education is provided, and engaged with, for reasons outside the penal framework of corrections and criminogenic risk factors.


This perspective on education aligns with recent research into desistance theory which focuses on pathways out of crime. Desistance models are distinct from reducing reoffending models because they utilise an aspirational and autonomous framework in contrast to the deficit approach taken by reducing reoffending models (see, for example, Maruna and Ward, 2007). Modern desistance theories recognise that desisting from crime involves a re-conceptualisation of the self and a move towards compliance to social norms (see Bottoms, 2002), “…the extent to which ex-offenders can achieve their desires and goals is partly dependent on the availability of legitimate identities” (Farrall, 2016, p. 201). In the prison, availability of different legitimate identities is sparse. Education has the potential to provide a safe space for alternative identities based on being ‘learners’ as opposed to ‘offenders’ or ‘prisoners’.  (Szifris, forthcoming).  


Research with successful ex-prisoners articulates the importance of the individual to have opportunities for change, ‘hooks’ that they can grab hold of to build a new life that allows them to move away from criminal activities (Giordano et al 2002). Giordano et al. (2002) are clear in stating that the environment must provide the “scaffolding that makes possible the construction of significant life changes” (2002, p.1000). At the centre of Giordano et al.’s theory is cognitive transformation; the person in question makes their own decisions regarding what paths to take, and what opportunities will allow them to flourish. These hooks are activities or opportunities that can act as sources of behavioural control or as a gateway to forming relationships with people who are not engaged in offending behaviour. Furthermore, they assist the individual in developing a projection of possible future selves by providing a “specific blueprint for how to proceed as a changed individual” (Giordano, 2016, p. 21). 


Our research suggests that education can provide meaningful ‘scaffolding’ for individuals to ‘hook’ onto. In particular, research conducted by Szifris and colleagues (2018) at the Policy Evaluation and Research Unit offers important insight into the evidence base for this. Their work involved conducting several evidence reviews to develop a deeper understanding of how education relates to desistance and concludes that education can act as a ‘hook for change’. Further, their work supports the assertion that education can act as a ‘safe space’ for prisoners to develop different identities (Szifris, Fox and Bradbury 2018). However, the authors emphasise that research remains sparse in this area, as the following section articulates. 



5. What data exist to demonstrate the effectiveness of education and training in prisons and on prisoner attainment, and what international comparisons are available?

As Dame Sally Coates articulates in her Review of Prison education (2016); 

“I quickly learnt during this review that data collected in prisons is not of a quality that provides conclusive evidence as to the value of specific interventions. This is also true of international evidence” (p. 8)

Further, a review of prison education research (Szfris, Fox, & Bradbury 2018), conducted by the Policy Evaluation and Research Unit, stated:

“A recent review of research suggested that participating in educational activities reduces recidivism and increases the likelihood of finding work (although these studies are subject to selection bias, see Ellison et al, 2017) ... However, the field remains under-theorised and under-researched. Prison researchers offer suggestions and indications as to the impact of prison education but often fall short of developing and articulating a full and comprehensive theory of prison education and its relevance to the lives of prisoners.” (p.41-42)

Whilst there has been some important, insightful, and relevant studies into education in prison, there remains large gaps in the evidence-base. Here, we provide a brief overview of the types of research that are commonly conducted, with some pointers towards key studies. We conclude with a brief discussion of how the evidence base can be improved. 


Three types of research currently exist:

The first of these - in-depth qualitative accounts - offers important insights into how and why education can assist the individual in forging their own path. A range of studies (see Szifris 2018, Bennallick, 2019, Pike & Hopkins, 2019, Nichols, 2017, Cleere, 2013 among others) place the individual experience of prisoners at the centre of their studies offering detailed accounts of particular prisons and the importance of education in the lives of the prisoners. However, most of these studies capture a particular period of time in a particular environment, and rarely follow up with participants to understand the longer-term impacts of involvement in education. This work provides important grounding for the discussion above regarding the purpose of education and can offer clear signposting for the types of education that ought to be offered (see case studies below). In particular, education in prison goes beyond skills gain and qualifications, being relevant to coping, wellbeing, developing positive relationships, providing safe spaces,  social capital and prison culture (see, in particular, Prisoner Learning Alliance, 2016).


Evaluations of individual programmes often take a more mixed-methods approach attempting to capture measures of progress and outcomes of participation. However, these are often small-scale and rarely constitute a robust outcome evaluation. Most relate to implementation evaluations and discuss the success of specific courses in particular prisons. Whilst these also provide valuable insights into the impact of education they still leave gaps as to understanding full view of education. An exception to this is a study from North America conducted by Stephen Duguid and Ray Pawson that followed 654 former prisoners who had engaged in higher level learning whilst in prison. They found that “75% had managed to remain free of any reincarceration for at least 3 years after release. This compares with an average of 40% to 50% reincarceration rate for released prisoners in most North American jurisdictions.’” (Duguid & Pawson, 1998, page 470). 


The third type of research tends to involve large scale correlation studies which look at post release outcomes for people who engaged in education whilst in prison and compares them to those that did not. A range of meta-analyses have been conducted which show a clear positive impact on post-release outcomes (see for example, Davis et al., 2013, MoJ Justice Datalab, particularly the 2014 and 2018 analysis of Prisoners’ Education Trust data). Analytical summaries of this evidence can be found at the Reducing Reoffending Website run by the Policy Evaluation and Research Unit team which “serves as a repository of evidence about interventions designed to reduce reoffending rates” (see here). The summary of Academic and Educational Programmes for Prisoners relates to a systematic review conducted by Bozick et al (2018) and states that the ‘certainty of impact’ is high. 


However, whilst large correlation studies are useful in showing that there is some link between education and positive post-release outcomes, it suffers from reductionism. Reductionism means that we reduce the relevant outcomes of education to that which is measurable (traditionally employment and recidivism rates). The measures themselves are widely criticised for accuracy (there is no universal measure of recidivism, for example, and exactly what constitutes an ‘employed’ status is complex, seeEllison et al 2017). More importantly, these studies do not have the capacity to address the issues of  how education relates to positive post-release outcomes; they lack the nuance required to understand what types of educational programme work. 


The Education Committee may want to consider the extent to which the measures of employment and reoffending are appropriate to assess the success of an education programmes in prison. In particular, as we have discussed in our response to the Purpose of Education section above, education ought to be related to personal development and finding appropriate means to assess this kind of holistic progress for individuals is needed. A relevant and appropriate tool available could be the Intermediate Outcomes Measurement Index (Maguire et al, 2019).

5. References

Anderson, S. and Cains, C. (2011). The Social Care Needs of Short-Sentence Prisoners. Revolving Doors. 

Bennallick, M. (2019). An Exploration of Learning Cultures in Prison, Unpublished PhD research, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Behan, C. (2007). Context, Creativity and Critical Reflection: Education in Correctional Institutions. Journal of Correctional Education. 58 (2), pp.157-169.

Bottoms, A. (2002). Morality, crime, compliance and public policy. In: A. Bottoms, & M. Tonry, ed. Ideology, crime and criminal justice: A symposium in Honour of Sir eon Radzinowicz. Columpton: Willan Publishing. pp.39-42

Bozick, R., Steele, J., Davis, L. and Turner, S., 2018. Does providing inmates with education improve postrelease outcomes? A meta-analysis of correctional education programs in the United States. Journal of Experimental Criminology, pp.1-40.

Brunton- Smith, I and Hopkins, K. (2014). The impact of experience in prison on the employment status of longer-sentenced prisoners after release: Results from the Surveying Prisoner Crime Reduction (SPCR) longitudinal cohort study of prisoners, Ministry of Justice Analytical Series, London: Ministry of Justice. 

Casey, S., Day, A., Vess, J., & Ward, T. (2013). Foundations of Offender Rehabilitation. Oxfordshire: Routledge.

Cleere, G. (2013). Prison education, scoial capital and desistance: an exploration of prisoners’ experiences in Ireland. Doctoral Thesis, Waterford Institute of Technology. 

Coates, S. (2016). Unlocking Potential: A review of education in prison. London: Ministry of Justice. 

Costelloe, A., & Warner, K. (2008). Beyond offending behaviour: The wider perspective of adult education and the European prison rules. In: R. Wright, In the borderlands: Learnng to teach in prisons and alternative settings. San Bernardino, California: San Bernadino State University. pp.136-146.

Creese, B. (2016). An assessment of the English and maths skills levels of prisoners in England. London Review of Education, 14(3), 13-30. 

Crewe, B., Warr, J., Bennett, P., & Smith, A. (2014). The emotional geography of prison life. Theoretical Criminology, 18(1), 56-74. 

Davis, L. M., Bozick, R., Steele, J. L., Saunders, J., Miles, J.N.V., (2013). A Meta-Analysis of Programs That Provide Education to Incarcerated Adults, RAND. 

Duguid, S. (2000). Can Prisons Work?: The Prisoner as Object and Subject in Modern Corrections. University of Toronto Press. 

Duguid S, Pawson R. Education, Change, and Transformation: The Prison Experience. Evaluation Review. 1998;22(4):470-495. doi:10.1177/0193841X9802200403

Ellison, M., Szifris, K., Horan, R., & Fox, C. (2017). A Rapid Evidence Assessment of the effectiveness of prison education in reducing recidivism and increasing employment. Probation Journal, 64(2), 108-128. 

Farrall, S. (2016). Understanding desistance in an assisted context: key findings from tracking progress on probation. In: J. Shapland, S. Farrall, & A. Bottoms, Global Perspectives on desistance: Reviewing what we know and looking to the future. Oxford: Routledge. pp.187-204.

Giordano, P. C., Cernkovitch, S. A., & Rudolph, J. L. (2002). Gender Crime and Desistance: Toward a Theory of Cognitive Transformation. American Journal of Sociology, 107 (4), pp.990-1064.

Graham, K. (2014). Does school prepare men for prison?. City, 18(6), 824-836. 

Hughes, E. (2012). Education in Prison: Studying Through Distance Learning. Ashgate Publishing Company: Surrey. 

Maruna, S. (2010 ). The great escape: Exploring the rehabilitative dynamics involved in 'Changing Tunes'. Retrieved 7/3/16 from Changing Tunes: http://www.changingtunes.org.uk/The%20Great%20Escape%20Prof%20Shadd%20Maruna.pdf.Ministry of Justice, (2014). Justice Data Lab Re-offending Analysis: Prisoners’ Education Trust. London. Open Government. 

Ministry of Justice, (2018). Justice Data Lab Experimental Statistics: Employment and benefits outcomes. London. Open Government. 

O'Donnell, A. (2013). Unpredictability, transformation, and the pedagogical encounter: Reflections on "What is effective" in education. Educational Theory , 63(3), pp.265-282.

Pike, Anne and Hopkins, Susan (2019). Transformative Learning: Positive Identity Through Prison-Based Higher Education in England and Wales. International Journal of Bias, Identity and Diversity in Education, 4(1) pp. 48–65.

Prisoner Learning Alliance, (2016). What is Prison Education for? A theory of change exploring the value of learning in prison. Prisoners’ Education Trust. 

Nichols, Helen (2017) Encouragement, Discouragement and Connection: The Role of Relationships in Prison Education Experiences. Prison Service Journal . ISSN 0300-3558

Reuss, A. (1999). Prison (er) education. The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 38(2), 113-127. 

Szifris, K., Fox, C., Bradbury, A. (2018). ‘A Realist Model of Prison Education, Growth, and Desistance: A New Theory’ in the Journal of Prison Education and Reentry, 5(1). 

Social Exclusion Unit, (2002). Reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners. London. Crown, 

Ward, T., & Maruna, S. (2007). Rehabilitation: Beyond the risk assessment paradigm. London, UK: Routledge.

Williams, K., Papadopoulou, V. and Booth, N. (2012). Prisoners’ childhood and family backgrounds: Results from the Surveying Prisoner Crime Reduction (SPCR) longitudinal cohort study of prisoners. Ministry of Justice. 


January 2021