‘Misspent youth’ should not mean a wasted life

Prisoners are among the least-educated of our young people, and their ‘misspent youth’ can affect them for life. Jane Hurry examines ways of improving their prospects, including the vital role of better assessment.

Man hunched over beside graffitiWhy should we care about education for young prisoners?

The collapse of the youth labour market and the expansion of the education system mean that education and training are becoming increasingly important for young adults. 42 per cent of this age group have enrolled in higher education alone. However, many young prisoners are without any qualifications and around two thirds are assessed as being at or below Level 1 in literacy and numeracy, ie below GCSE A*-C level. Statistics tell us that the great majority of these young people will grow out of offending. But they remain at risk of being left with the legacy of a ‘misspent youth’.

What does this signify for education and more particularly, assessment?

If we look back over the past 20 years, we see evidence that education for youth offenders has been promoted. Perhaps the most obvious example is the introduction of a required 15 hours of education per week, plus additional vocational training for the under-18s. Assessment has played an important role here. It has enabled young people to achieve qualifications for the first time and has been used in target-setting. Target-setting has its own problems, but it is also a lever to encourage new ways of doing things.

However, the emphasis has increasingly been on ‘basic skills,’ and this is potentially problematic in two ways: it fails to recognise the wider benefits of learning, and it pitches levels too low. These were issues which emerged in our recent survey of prison education for the under-25s.

An emphasis on basic skills

Basic skills have their place, but it is dangerous for the basic skills agenda to become dominant. The majority of young people in prison are primed to be bored by education and unless the teacher is very skilful, learning about ‘basic skills’ will confirm their worst fears. Taking a less skills-based approach to the curriculum opens up opportunities for fun and games, but available assessments and qualifications foreground a skills agenda. This influences teachers, who are incentivised to deliver learners with qualifications. Prison education staff regard it as their core business to provide learners with the opportunity to gain qualifications, at any level. Assessment can encourage good practice, even within these constraints. For example, the assessment of grammar tends to emphasise rules rather than creativity, yet grammar is part of the writer’s tool box for communicating moods and meanings, and it is possible to assess it in these ways (see the work of Deborah Myhill).

Qualification levels are too low

The vast majority of qualifications taken by the under-25s in prison are at Entry Level 3 and Level 1. Typically, less than 10 per cent of qualifications were found to be at Level 2 in our recent survey. Whilst two-thirds of young prisoners may be at Level 1 or below on entry to prison, that still leaves 33 per cent who are at Level 2 or above. Additionally, the qualification most prized both by these young people and by employers is the GCSE. Access to GCSE courses in custody is extremely limited. Part of the problem is short length of stay (of less than 3 months), and the solution to that is to ensure flexible qualifications that can transfer across training institutions. However, even those who are in custody for longer are not being offered GCSE courses often enough. Part of the problem is that the assessments given at induction fail to differentiate sensitively at the higher levels. This needs attention so that prison educators can see who is ready for Level 2 or 3 qualifications.

Jane Hurry is a psychologist and co-director of the Centre for Education in the Criminal Justice system at the Institute of Education, University of London.

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