Major study finds poor literacy and numeracy among prisoners

Prisoners in England have much lower levels of literacy and numeracy than the general population, according to research published this week in the London Review of Education.

The study, the first like-for-like comparison between the skills of inmates and those of all adults, found the gap much wider in literacy skills than in numeracy.

Brian Creese, joint head of the Centre for Education in the Criminal Justice System at the UCL Institute of Education, examined results from assessments carried out on 123,000 people entering prison during 2014-15. The assessments, which have been carried out by four external providers on every new prisoner since August 2014, were compared with the results of the national Skills for Life survey carried out in 2011.

The study, published online this week, found just 14 per cent of prisoners were at GCSE level or equivalent (level two) in literacy, compared with 57 per cent among the general population. In the general population 86 per cent have literacy skills at level one or above, whereas in prison the figure is just 50 per cent.

In maths, the skill gap was narrower – half the general population had maths skills at level one or above, while 43 per cent of prisoners were assessed at that level.

The smaller gap in maths skills was only partially explained by gender bias – women tend to do better in literacy than numeracy, while for men the opposite is true. Just one in 20 of the prisoners who took the tests were female, but even after taking account of this the gap remained.

Brian Creese, the author of the study, said it was likely that those involved in criminal activity used numeracy skills – making deals and calculating returns, for example – more than formal literacy skills.

“Addressing these needs should be a priority for Government,” he said. “Education is seen across many countries as having a positive role in leading prisoners out of the re-offending cycle.”

The current emphasis for prison education is on employment skills. Prisoners who wish to pursue higher-level studies such as A-Levels or advanced apprenticeships must fund them through student loans.

Education in prisons has been found to be consistently poor in OFSTED inspections. However, each of the four external providers has both well-performing and poorly-performing prisons, suggesting that the management of the prison has a crucial impact on the quality of education provision.

Notes to journalists:

This research, An assessment of the English and maths skills levels of prisoners in England,’  was first published in November 2015.

Brian Creese is available for comment on 07860 104012.

Brian is joint head of the Centre for Education in the Criminal Justice System at the UCL Institute of Education, London.

The full article can be seen here on the London Review of Education.

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