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Education and training for young offenders

Laura Brazier and Jane Hurry, of the Institute of Education, discuss  education and training for offenders. They outline what we know and what we need to know, and suggest how we might take our knowledge forward.

Many of the estimated 5.2 million adults in Britain with literacy, language and numeracy needs are involved in the criminal justice system; a substantial proportion of these are young people. We know that raising education and skill levels can help to reduce re-offending and facilitate entry into the labour market. Accordingly, the Skills for Life strategy has identified offenders, both in custody and in the community, as a priority group.

Policy responses include new kinds of sentences, such as the Detention and Training Order for young people, introduced in April 2000, which incorporates learning as part of the rehabilitative process, and the Offenders Learning and Skills Unit, established in a partnership between the Prison Service and the Department for Education and Skills. The Unit has been operational since April 2001.

The research community has done some work on evaluating the effectiveness of these innovations but the evidence about what is effective with this particular group of learners is sparse. Clear messages have yet to be produced. 

What do we need  to know?

Short-term outcomes
Empirical research which directly measures whether provision works is a critical gap in our knowledge. There are very few studies that aim to measure improvements in the literacy and numeracy skills of this group of learners.

Long-term outcomes
Similarly, we know little about the long-term outcomes of improved literacy and numeracy skills for this group of learners. In particular, we need to know whether they continue to get into trouble and/or whether they have found employment. The NRDC young offenders project (1), having found that their literacy and numeracy skills improved, will follow them up a year later to investigate:

  • (a) if they continue to get in trouble with the police;
  • (b) if they are still claiming benefits, and therefore not engaged in official or unofficial employment.

We need a better understanding of the barriers that these learners encounter. Specifically, how does education and training provision fit into the demands and constraints associated with involvement in the criminal justice system? For example, being ‘tagged’ and under a curfew means that the offender has to be home by early evening. Evening provision is therefore unsuitable and it may be necessary to ask for time off work to attend classes during the day. Policy makers need to find ways to integrate enforcement and rehabilitative activities with education and training.

This a key issue for many learning activities, but engaging offenders in education and training has proved particularly difficult. We need to know what offenders, particularly young offenders, want to get out of learning. We need a better understanding of what motivates them and of what their needs are so that we can develop provision that meets those needs. 

Effective practice
How literacy and numeracy provision is taught in relation to vocational training or offending behaviour programmes is becoming increasingly important. Many young people in the NRDC young offenders project preferred embedded literacy and numeracy teaching to discrete classes. NRDC’s case studies of embedded teaching also point to the effectiveness of this type of provision. Phase two of the research will examine the impact of embedded methods on vocational results for learners at levels one and two, taking into account attendance, retention, vocational achievement, LLN certification and learner and teacher attitudes.

The use of ICT in custody presents particular issues. Implementing web-based learning, such as through learndirect, presents a security challenge but having access to the internet in custody has the potential to revolutionise learning and widen participation in secure contexts. Studies of these issues are beginning to emerge but more studies are required on effectiveness. 

Contemporary LLN
The nature of literacy, language and numeracy skills is changing. A contemporary understanding of what these skills mean to adults' lives is becoming increasingly important. This is not necessarily specific to offenders or young offenders. LLN skills, as used by adults in their everyday lives, are more than just what we measure.

 What needs  to be done?

The first and essential requirement is a comprehensive and systematic literature review, to make sure that we are using our current evidence base to best effect. Drawing together key research findings would enable them to be strategically disseminated into policy and practice. Identifying gaps in knowledge would help to highlight future research priorities.

The wider European and international evidence base, particularly from the US and Canada, can be a rich resource for the UK but we should be cautious when relating these findings to the UK context. Analysis should take account of the different policy frameworks and federal structure.

Offenders are often excluded or marginalised within the research process. Researchers need to involve more learners who have direct experience of education and training and to make use of their experience of learning within their custodial or community learning environments. The criminal justice system is a major context of their lives and they are in the best position to address questions about motivation and further aspirations.

Practitioners who work with offenders in custodial and community settings have a wealth of expertise. Identifying best practice, evaluating learning material, and examining classroom dynamics are tasks best done by tutors. More tutors need to become involved in setting and taking part in research in this field. The NRDC’s Effective Practice series of studies on literacy, numeracy and ESOL include practitioners working in custodial contexts and will make a significant contribution to this area of research.

The research community has a key role to play in developing education and training provision for offenders by underpinning policy thinking and practice with evidence. We need to:

  • take stock and make sure we are utilising what we know;
  • have a clear direction when outlining future research priorities;
  • start at the point of the learner; including offenders within the research process is a fundamental first step; and
  • develop research evidence from practitioner-researchers.

Learning in the criminal justice system presents a particular challenge. The research community has a key role to play in ensuring that the right questions are asked and that the voices of learners, practitioners and policy-makers are heard.


(1) Improving the literacy and numeracy of disaffected young people in custody and in the community (NRDC 2005).    www.nrdc.org.uk/uploads/documents/doc_656.pdf

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