Prisoners' literacy and numeracy levels

Mural of literacy related concepts with text "Tell me an I learn"

When I first got involved with prison education I was surprised and puzzled by the lack of hard information about prisoners’ skills. Every report I picked up, every article I read and headline glanced had different views on prisoners and their skills. Mostly reference was made to children, such as 2/3 of prisoners have reading age of less than 11 years or 87% of prisoners can’t do simple primary school maths. These references are not useful to someone who works in adult literacy and numeracy since I am not clear what level “primary school maths” might be and we do not assign reading ages to adults.

I eventually discovered that the basis of these figures was a House of Commons written answer drawn from a 2002 report from the Social Exclusion Unit which in turn quoted a survey done in prisons in 2001. Further research shows that while that survey was valid, the interpretation in the Social Inclusion Unit report was flawed owing to a lack of understanding of different levels used by two different skills surveys. 

Nearly everyone agrees that education is a vital aspect of helping prisoners rehabilitate, and yet we do not know how good or bad their basic literacy and numeracy skills are. It became my ambition to answer this question and come up with some reliable and useful figures about the prison population. Then I discovered that it had just become mandatory for education providers in prisons to conduct initial assessments in English and maths for all new prisoners. Here was my opportunity.  Despite having no funding I was able to persuade the four prison providers – Novus, Milton Keynes College, Weston College and PeoplePlus - to share their data with me. Thanks to their generous cooperation I was provided with the assessment results for 104 prisons, just over 124,000 assessments. 

The assessments were conducted using a standard tool common in adult literacy and numeracy education which provides a reliable guide as to a person’s educational level. These range from Level 2, generally considered equivalent to GCSE grades A*-C, through Level 1, Entry level 3, Entry level 2 to the lowest Entry level 1. 

As I wanted to equate these levels to those of the general population I needed a benchmark, and that was the 2012 Skills for Life survey, which sampled the entire population of England and Wales using very similar tools and identical adult skills levels. Despite the limitations in this approach, I was now equipped to compare the skills levels of the 2014-15 prison intake with the skills of the population as a whole. The result is our report An assessment of the English and maths skills levels of prisoners in England.


So what was found? Firstly that literacy levels in prison are very poor compared with outside prison. Using the old Skills for Life definition of ‘functional literacy’, those with Level 1 or level 2 literacy skills, in prison just 50% have these skills compared to 85% of the general population. 

We might expect Level 2 skills to be poorer in prison, but the pattern is continued across all levels with prisoners having far lower literacy skills than the general population. Based on these results we can say that for at least half of last year’s prisoners, literacy will prove a significant barrier to gaining employment. 

Graph showing levels of literacy for prisons

In general the public has far lower skills in numeracy than literacy, possibly why the Skills for Life programme defined ‘functional numeracy’ as being Entry level 3 and upwards. Using that definition the general population has76% with functional numeracy skills, but 80% of the prison population are at that level. This is entirely unexpected, and a rather positive result. It is difficult to know the reason for this but it may be caused by prisoners having more opportunity to use their numeracy skills than their literacy ones and, therefore, less 'skills fade' from not using these skills.

Graph showing levels of numeracy for prisons

In one sense, comparing prisoners’ English and maths levels and those of the general population is not reasonable. The general population has a fairly even gender mix, but the prison population is strongly biased towards males. We can strip out the adult males from the female estate and the Young Offenders Institutions (YOI) to see what impact gender has on skills. 

Prisoners’ literacy levels by gender

Graph showing prisoner literacy broken down by gender

Prisoners’ numeracy levels by gender

Graph showing prisoner numeracy broken down by gender

Our figures suggest that in general female prisoners have marginally better English skills than males, and that YOI inmates, males between 18-21, have similar levels to females in prison. This is reversed with maths skills. Here males show better skills than females, though again YOI inmates score as highly as males. 


I think the implications of the exceptionally low level of literacy skills is profound. My impression is that provision in prisons is, like that in general FE provision, largely geared towardsLevel 1 lessons and Level 2 if there are opportunities to progress this far. Again, much of this provision is likely to be quite ‘classroom-ish’, consisting of talk and exercises from the teacher. The cohort who are operating at Entry level is not likely to respond well to this approach or to being placed in classes above their capabilities. What is really needed for the 20% of prisoners with Entry level 1 and Entry level 2 skills is teachers with the knowledge and understanding of tackling this level, time and space for very personalised provision based on an in-depth assessment, ideally carried out in a one-to-one interview. The reasons for these low level assessments need to be unpicked, in particular to what extent the difficulties are caused by language rather than literacy difficulties and whether the reading and writing areas are equally poor. And continuity is important, so that prisoners are not having to go through this rigorous assessment process again and again. 

It seems to me that there is plenty of room in this more individualised approach for schemes like The Shannon Trust Reading Plan, The Six Book Challenge and prison reading groups, provided that these are entered into with some consultation with the education staff; prison libraries could hold a central role in joining up the various schemes and approaches, an important link between agencies. My worry is that at present too many of these learners are receiving the wrong level of provision in education classes and that other help and support is uncoordinated and untargeted.

For too long prison education has been planned and funded without real knowledge of where the challenges really are. These figures ae just a start on being able to provide an accurate picture of the skills across the entire prison estate, and given the average sentence of 8 months most of this cohort have already been released and their places filled by others, who may have different characteristics. Nonetheless, even if more a snapshot than a compressive picture of the prisons profile, this is at least robust, concrete and real data on the actual basic skills of prisoners today. 


Image source: "Literacy Mural" by AnubisAbyss, used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 / Original cropped and resized

CILIP and prison library advocacy

CILIP has been in recent contact with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Andrew Selous MP, about the important role of prison librarians to improve literacy and education amongst the prison population.

A recent report by the CILIP Prison Libraries Group identified that there are challenges providing access to prison library services, with overall prison staffing levels and perceptions about the value of access to library services amongst all prison staff as contributing factors.

Read more about CILIP's ongoing prison library advocacy work and the work of our Prison Libraries special interest group.

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