Education in prisons can be different from other learning situations, especially with security ranging from high to low risk categories and each prison having individual routines and structures. These considerations affect tutors’ teaching strategies, techniques and resources. This article gives some insights into learning within ‘secure estate’.

Prison education
Tutors in prisons often work under the manager for Learning and Skills in the prison education department. Although not warders, tutors are subject to regulations supporting the safety system. These include restrictions on what can be brought into the building and security checks and operations that can change at short notice. Teaching can be in Education, Resettlement or on the wing. These and other considerations impact on learning so it’s good for tutors to have a flexible attitude to teaching.

The system
When someone enters the prison education system they have an assessment. With an interview, this helps tutors note levels of reading, writing, maths and other skills for individual learning plans. There is no national system for recording progression and achievement though, so information may not follow learners between prisons. Ofsted have noted strategic planning for educational support. Tutors are encouraged to plan, teach and evaluate as they would in many other settings and there will be CPD available as elsewhere and opportunities for development.

People cope with their sentences in different ways and there is no ‘standard ‘prisoner profile. There are tensions between incarceration and rehabilitation and tutors need to feel prepared for challenges such as:

  • drug and alcohol problems
  • mental and other health issues
  • poor literacy and numeracy
  • unhappy educational, care or parenting experiences
  • dyslexia - dyscalculia

Not everyone you teach will be in these categories but it’s worth remembering:

  • people miss families and friends
  • parents, especially mothers as main carers, worry about their children and what’s happening to them
  • everyone waits for release but may worry about what will happen to them if they don’t have a home, job or family support even though there are many different agencies active in helping resettlement

To be involved in education is to be part of a really positive force providing qualifications ranging from much appreciated records of achievement that have never been received before by some, to academic degrees for long term prisoners. Tutors can open doors into education that have remained firmly shut for years.

Teaching strategies
Learners in prison need education programmes promoting skills and a positive transition to release. Over half of male and two-thirds of female prisoners have no qualifications (DFES 2005) and a ‘Prison Reform Trust’ report (2004) suggests a third of male prisoners were excluded from school.

Poor reading and writing abilities suggest a high incidence of dyslexia requiring specific strategies for good support.  A sound knowledge of different learning styles and enthusiasm for designing interesting, inclusive programmes goes a long way towards supporting adults in prison education.

In classrooms group dynamics are important and can affect learning and in prison this is particularly important within the interplay of complex relationships. Some extra ideas can help in a prison setting:

  • listen to peoples’ stories
  • encourage and praise - highlight creativity
  • use motivational questioning techniques
  • be aware of issues for non-native speakers
  • leave space for communications and group support to develop

Tutors will often find themselves limited in the resources and materials that they can take into the classroom. Computers may not be freely accessible, potentially dangerous items acceptable in other classrooms may be banned. Regulations will vary between institutions.

While this can sometimes feel negative it can also lead to considerable creativity and diversity in teaching, resourcing and ideas. Prison tutors often develop excellent, innovative learning materials and may create unusual resources for in-house use. There can be a range of different workshops from textiles to DIY as well as more traditional classes.

Classes and embedding
Tutors often run interesting, stimulating classes despite the differences from other education establishments. Programmes situated in realistic contexts will maintain interest. Use opportunities for embedding language, reading, writing and numeracy whenever possible.  
Here are just a few embedding ideas:

  • numbers, scale and proportion in art
  • writing for prison radio programmes
  • discussion around speech such as ‘backslang’ and other prison languages for speaking and listening
  • ‘supporting your child’s reading and writing’ in Family Learning

Does it work?
The ‘Offenders Learning and Skills Unit’ reported that less than a third of prisoners attend education classes. Many are put off by school and reading or writing problems. Prisoners may have learning difficulties, often coupled with low self-esteem. However, within the system there are other learning opportunities through:

  • resettlement activities
  • parenting sessions
  • advice and counselling services for dependency issues
  • self-help sessions to prepare for life in the community after release
  • mentoring programmes

Despite the challenges facing tutors in prison education there are great rewards. Learners can achieve qualifications for the first time and people will show their appreciation of the efforts put in by the tutors educating, training and offering work opportunities within the service. A tutor may never know the very positive impact that they’ve had on someone’s experience in prison.  


Embedding literacy, language and numeracy learning

Family learning and prisons

Dyslexia within the prison service

Prison Advice and Care Trust

Dyslexia within the Prison Service

Wikipedia Learning Styles

Clark, C & Dugdale, G (2008) Literacy Changes Lives – The role of literacy in offending behaviour. London National Literacy Trust

LLU+ (2008) LLN Workplace Toolkit. London ISBN

LLU+ (2011) Family Learning in prisons. Learning Unlimited. ISBN

DFES (2005) Reducing re-offending through skills and employment: Next steps. London ISBN

Van Wormer, K & Bartollas, C (2000) Women and the Criminal Justice System, Allyn and Bacon. Boston ISBN

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