Curriculum deliver effective learning for offenders

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There are approximately 85,000 prisoners serving time in the 140 prisons in England and Wales (Bromley Briefings, 2009; HM Prison Service 2010) and the prison population provides an accurate reflection of the links between indicators of disadvantage the probability of offending. Research showing large numbers of prisoners possessing no qualifications and/or basic skills at, or below, level 1 (Bromley Briefings, 2009) suggests a clear connection between basic skills deficiencies and the general prison population. This link has placed the teaching of basic skills at the foreground of the need to address both offending behaviour and recidivism.

Historically, offender education was viewed as either a means of occupying prisoners' time or as a moral entitlement and received little attention in the rehabilitation debate; however since the early 1990s it has progressed from the margins to become a central theme in the Government's discourse surrounding offending, recidivism and rehabilitation. Since 1997, with social inclusion's emergence as a major government concern and the increased focus on skills and employability education has assumed a key role in prison policy.

The ascendance of the Labour Party to government resulted in post-compulsory education and training (PCET) policy being progressively driven by economic arguments, founded upon the globalisation thesis, about the UK's need for an increasingly skilled and qualified workforce. Reports, such as The Learning Age (DfEE, 1998) and Learning to Succeed (DfEE, 1999) championed the creation of a knowledge economy formed through, and supported by, upskilling. The role of PCET in providing a skilled workforce to support the economy, and the importance of gaining recognised qualifications "as a measure of success for both individuals and providers" (DfEE, 1999, p.47) was emphasised and cemented by the creation of both the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) and National Qualifications Framework (NQF) in 2001.

Concurrently, the drive towards vocationalism was reflected in offender education policy with, in 2000, the Prison Service stating that "The purpose of education within prisons is to address the offending behaviour of inmates by improving employability and thus reduce the likelihood of reoffending upon release..." (Education in prisons, 2000, 1.1). In order to achieve this aim, the Prisoner Learning and Skills Unit (PLSU) (later to become the Offender Learning and Skills Unit (OLSU)) was created within the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) in 2001.

The PLSU was tasked with improving both the quality and quantity of educational provision in prisons (DfES, 2003a) and at this point, with the ongoing aim of aligning it with mainstream provision, prison education became subject to the Common Inspection Framework (CIF) and the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) (Healey, 2002, p.4). The PLSU's vision for prison education, outlined in its delivery plan (DfES, 2003b), was that offenders should be provided with education and training that would enable them to gain the qualifications and skills necessary to obtain employment, and that the content and quality of offender provision should be comparable with that on offer in the mainstream. In reality the educational offer consisted largely of basic skills and low-level vocational courses (SEU, 2002), and perhaps resultantly, it was acknowledged that prisoners did not "gain as much as they should from education and training while in prison" (SEU, 2002, p.43).

By 2005 the PLSU/OLSU's initiatives were deemed to have failed; during the period 2002/03 external inspections concluded that educational provision was failing in 78 per cent of prisons (DfES, 2005a, p.17) and the ALI stated that more than half of inspected prisons offered inadequate educational provision (BBC, 2006).

The Government's revised strategy for improving offender learning was launched in the Green Paper Reducing Re-offending Through Skills and Employment (DfES, 2005a) which continued the earlier focus on employability skills/approved accreditation and introduced a key change to previous policy with an initiative to involve employers in both the design and delivery of educational programmes. This was in keeping with policy to align prison education with mainstream FE provision which had been committed to an employer-led and demand-driven system by the 2005 White Paper Getting on in Business, Getting on at Work (DfES, 2005b).

This alignment with mainstream provision was further strengthened by the piloting of the 'Offender Learning Campus' - charged with forging links with mainstream education and training, and by the development of the Offender Learning and Skills Service (OLASS), funded and planned by the LSC and responsible, for the first time, for offender learning both in custody and in the community. OLASS was trialled in three regions in 2005 as OLASS 1 before going live across England in 2006 as OLASS 2 and was viewed at its inception as a means by which existing delivery services could be mustered and focussed upon the particular needs of offender education. Under the new arrangements existing providers of offender education were required to reapply to the LSC and compete for new three year contracts in an open market.

Prison education's subsumation into the LSC resulted in a gradual re-focussing of provision towards offenders with low educational achievements, and this mirrored what was happening in the wider FE arena (Aldridge and Tuckett, 2009) which had become organised, almost in its entirety, in order to deliver Lord leitch's (2006) skills targets. OLASS's direction was set out in the report Reducing Re-offending Through Skills and Employment: Next Steps (DfES, 2006), whilst the specifications for the new service were derived from an earlier DfES work - The Offender's Learning Journey (OLJ) (DfES, 2004). It was from the OLJ's strongly vocational stance that OLASS derived its vision "that offenders, in prisons and supervised in the community, according to need, should have access to learning and skills which enables them to gain the skills and qualifications they need to hold down a job and have a positive role in society" (DfES, 2004, p.5). This ethos is firmly evidenced in the 2007 publication OLASS in England: a brief guide (DIUS, 2007a) which describes OLASS's primary purpose as being to ensure that offenders have the skills for life (literacy, language, numeracy and basic IT skills) as well as work skills to enable them to secure employment following release.

The globalisation thesis can be seen as driving the instrumentalist discourse underpinning LSC (and consequently OLASS) policy. These arguments are expressed in terms of 'global competitiveness' and the 'knowledge economy' and "invoke the terrors of foreign competition" (Wolf, 2009, p.58). Issues surrounding globalisation have dominated policy discourses of recent years with education seen as having a central role to play in the nation's success as it endeavours to succeed within the global economy. Many reports (for instance, The Learning Age (DfEE, 1998); Learning to Succeed (DfEE, 1999) and The Leitch Report (2006)) have championed the creation of a knowledge economy formed through, and supported by, upskilling. However some, (for instance Coffield, Edward, Finlay, Hodgson, Spours and Steer, 2008; Wolf, 2002; Pritchett, 2001) have questioned this assumption, believing that education and skills are just one of many influences that may affect growth citing other factors, for example the Treasury's five levers of productivity (Caulkin 2007; Keep, Mayhew and Payne, 2006, p.543) as equally important.

OLASS 2 contracts ran in England from 2006 until 2009 and during this time the attainment of basic skills and vocational training qualifications (first full level 2) contributed significantly to the Government's Public Service Agreement (PSA) targets. Participation in education increased by 10 per cent between 2006 and 2008 (Simon, 2008, cited in The Guardian, 2008) and large numbers achieved Skills for Life qualifications (contributing almost 10 per cent towards the 2007 target of 1.5 million awards (LSC, 2007b)). Despite this OLASS 2 attracted criticism, most notably from Edward Leigh, chairman of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) who considered that it had "failed in almost every respect" (Leigh, 2008, no page no.). Specifically the PAC was critical of the inadequacy of provision for those serving less than 12 months, and a lack of performance incentives to encourage providers to reach those with genuine need, a concern also shared by the DfES (2004). This criticism was echoed by the National Audit Office (NAO) which found that only approximately 20 per cent of those assessed with very low literacy and numeracy levels were actually enrolled on appropriate courses (PAC, 2008). To counter this the NAO recommended prioritising referrals to providers based on learners' needs, and introducing new contracts that incentivised providers by rewarding them for offenders' achievements. The NAO, in common with Ofsted (2009), was also critical of the lack of consistency in provision across prisons which, with transfers between establishments common, resulted in a third of all courses undertaken remaining unfinished. To remedy this the NAO recommended the establishment of a core curriculum within each prison to bring consistency to the provision offered.


In 2009 after a retendering process, new contracts for OLASS 3 were awarded. OLASS 3 policy is largely derived from earlier works (Developing the Offenders' Learning and Skills Service (LSC, 2007a), Offenders' Learning and Skills (LSC 2008b ) and a revision of the Offender's Learning Journey (LSC, 2008a)) and, like its predecessor OLASS 2, has an intense focus upon employability achieved through basic, key and vocational skills. However, OLASS 3 differs from previous arrangements in three key aspects: it is based upon the delivery of a core curriculum, a tranche of funding is dependent upon core curriculum achievements and the Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) is to be used as the basis for qualification accreditation.

These developments can be seen as a response to criticisms levied by the PAC, NAO and Ofsted but also reflect the LSC's ongoing, convergent change process, began in 2006, to align offender learning with mainstream provision. This process has involved consultation with stakeholders, most notably through the use of 'road shows' held in nine regions during 2007 (LSC, 2007c), reflecting an awareness that stakeholder views and expectations are important and have the ability to influence the outcomes of planned change (Harrison and St. John, 1998).

The establishment of a core curriculum has been fundamental to the OLASS 3 change and its creation, along with the use of the QCF, has facilitated a system that affords offenders the opportunity to continue their studies following transfer or release and enables providers to be rewarded for achievements or punished for failure. Previously there had been practical difficulties in holding education providers to account for outcomes (which form the basis for funding incentives in mainstream FE) because inmates' frequent movement between establishments and absences (due, for instance, to court appearances) were beyond the provider's control and meant that offenders' study courses might sometimes be delivered by different providers or not completed at all. The use of the QCF to accredit 'small chunks' of learning afforded the LSC greater scope to hold providers accountable and link funding to success.

The core curriculum has three strands broadly grouped as functional skills, vocational skills and employability skills (QCF, 2010, p.16) and these areas will receive 80 per cent of the contract value (LSC, 2008a). Other provision putatively less relevant to the skills and employment agenda, for example personal development learning or the arts curriculum, is designated as low priority by the LSC (now the Skills Funding Agency (SFA)) and targeted for 20 per cent of available funding.

This prioritisation of funding mirrors the former LSC's arrangements for Personal and Community Development Learning (PCDL) whereby 80 per cent of provision is targeted at the delivery of priority provision (largely dictated by the Leitch Report (2006) and World Class Skills (DIUS, 2007b), while 20 per cent consists of learning considered to be oriented towards personal fulfilment or leisure (LSC 2007a). This symmetry in funding arrangements is matched by the similarity between the offender core curriculum and the Foundation Learning Curriculum (FLC) launched in mainstream FE in 2010. Both curricula focus upon basic and vocational skills and are targeted at learners with either low, or no, formal qualifications, and both make use of the QCF, from which all OLASS core curriculum provision will be drawn from August 2010 (LSC, 2010).

The core curriculum consists of seven curriculum areas, six of which are relevant to adult offender learning - area four being targeted at under-16s in custody. Four of these areas qualify for high priority OLASS funding and form the core curriculum for adult offenders in custody (LSC, 2008b). It is against this core curriculum that providers will be incentivised by the rewarding of 5 per cent of the contract value dependent upon an achievement rate of 62 per cent (comparable with the current FE achievement rate for short courses) against agreed targets (LSC, 2009a, pp. 16-17).

Whilst providers' success will be judged by outcomes, OLASS itself has more nebulous success criteria. The OLJ (DfES, 2004) commits itself to increasing participation, achievement and employability levels, but it and all subsequently published OLASS documents fail to detail how, for instance, the success of educational interventions are to measured in terms of reduced re-offending or increased employability. Since OLASS's mission is to equip offenders with the skills necessary to gain employment (and thus resist re-offending) a consideration of the likely impact of the new arrangements is hampered by a lack of concrete success criteria by which they can be judged and an absence of data on the success, or otherwise, of previous initiatives, a deficiency recognised by the NAO (PAC, 2008). Nevertheless, an assessment of the core curriculum, its associated funding mechanism and use of the QCF is possible, and its likely effectiveness in improving provision and contributing to a better education for prisoners will now be examined before the wider implications of the curriculum are considered.

Curriculum area one - IAG and Preparation for Employment

This area is designated as high priority for funding and focuses on skills for employment. It is targeted at offenders serving less than one year (LSC, 2007a) and its primary purpose is to use Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) to "encourage future employment and participation in learning and skills" (LSC, 2007a, p.46). Offenders on short sentences with identified basic skills needs will not have these addressed since OLASS considers that beginning a course of study that may not be completed is "de-motivating and devalues learning and skills" (Ibid.). Rather, these offenders will be directed towards provision which may be available elsewhere following release.

IAG forms a valuable part of offender education and if the link between the acquisition of basic and vocational skills and a reduction in re-offending is to be believed then the provision of information, advice and guidance, essentially signposting towards educational provision and/or employment opportunities is sensible. However, it seems perverse that IAG will form the bulk of the provision for those serving sentences of between a few months and up to one year, a group which represents the highest proportion of the prison population (PAC, 2008, p.9, Stewart, 2008, p. iii) and has the highest rates of recidivism (Home Office, 2006b, p.9).

Whilst it is acknowledged that for some, signposting may be the best that can be achieved given time constraints and the need for other interventions for issues such as drug/alcohol misuse or behavioural problems, Ofsted (2009) considered that it was possible to make educational progress with those serving twelve months or less. For some within this group, which includes many young offenders (Home Office 2006b), limited educational intervention is possible and the use of the newly introduced QCF could make accreditation possible. Through even small improvements to learning and skills, prisoners might benefit from increased self-esteem and confidence as well as being incentivised to further pursue learning (Ofsted, 2009). This may help to slow the 'revolving door' of reconviction which, as Coles (1995) recognised, often develops through a series of staged progressions leading ultimately to a life of habitual crime interspersed by regular periods of imprisonment. Positive interventions in the early stages of this process could potentially halt further progression, and prison education might, despite its limitations, be more effective at encouraging participation than mainstream provision. Offenders in prison have 'time on their hands' and are, for the most part, away from the distractions and temptations of their outside lives. Furthermore, prison educators are expert at reengaging those who may previously have rejected formal structures of learning. This is recognised by Action for Employment (A4E), a training company that provides services for offenders both in custody and the community, which finds that "engagement of offenders in custody is often easier due to the structures of the prison institution" (A4E, cited by UK Parliament, 2008, no page no.).

By precluding such a large proportion of the prison population from participation in learning, OLASS risks perpetuating the cycle of exclusion which is likely to have brought many offenders to prison in the first place (SEU, 2002). IAG seeks to remedy this exclusion through a social interactionist approach which views participation in paid employment as crucial to social inclusion (Levitas, 1998). Within this conception, achieving inclusion might be viewed as the individual's moral responsibility with the 'right to work' having been replaced by the duty of the individual to find work, or failing this, to enhance their employability through participation in education or training.

There may, however, be practical problems in delivering advice and guidance that seeks to reengage individuals in formal systems which they may previously have rejected, and it may be overly optimistic to believe that merely signposting will be sufficient to encourage participation. There may also be dilemmas in defining the success criteria by which the outcomes of such interventions are to be measured. If these are too rigidly defined as, for instance, full reintegration into formal systems then an assumption is made that this is the only desirable outcome and the autonomy of the individual is undermined. This may be pragmatically counterproductive as any attempts to impel individuals too swiftly towards such outcomes may well be resisted thereby reducing the likelihood of achieving success.

Curriculum area two - Skills for Life offer

This area seeks to address the needs of those with basic/functional skills deficiencies who are expected to require at least six months to make progress (LSC, 2008b). Adult life outcomes are frequently the product of social and educational processes comprising an amalgam of influences in which both literacy and numeracy play a part, and this may be particularly true of offenders. Research by Brynner (2002, cited in The Independent, 2002) concluded that school leavers with poor reading and maths skills have a high risk of imprisonment, and this is supported by the Bromley Briefings (2009, p.16) findings that in excess of 50 per cent of prisoners have literacy and numeracy abilities at or below level 1.

The provision of literacy, language and numeracy programmes must then be a priority for many inmates, and in terms of target achievements this area has undoubtedly proved successful with, as previously cited, offenders contributing significantly to government objectives. Whilst the LSC (2008b) guide to the core curriculum puts no restrictions on participation in the Skills for Life offer other than that at least six months will be required to make progress, another LSC publication states that policy accords "significantly lower priority" to offenders with over two years remaining to serve than to other groups (LSC 2008c, p.12). This prioritisation accords with OLASS's earlier pronouncement that funding should be directed at those nearing release (LSC, 2007a, p.38) and inevitably risks a substantial proportion of the prison population with significant needs remaining ineligible for assistance during much of their sentence.

For those offenders most in need, who may require up to, or in excess of, two years of tuition before their skills are sufficiently improved to allow further progression, this restriction may preclude them from taking part in other educational activities. It may also impact on their ability to engage with the legal process (Schuller 2009, p.17), to work within the prison industries and to participate in offending behaviour programmes, and is contrary to parliament's (UK Parliament, 2005, p.13) belief that education in prison is the right thing to do in a civilised society.

The wisdom of excluding a sizeable proportion of the prison population from accessing basic skills provision is questionable, however the overemphasis placed upon basic skills in the past has attracted criticism. Although it may seem axiomatic that the improvement of basic skills abilities will improve employability chances and thus reduce recidivism, a causal link between basic skills and employability has yet to be established (HM Prison Service, cited by O'Brien, 2010, p.39). Indeed the Education and Skills Committee (UK Parliament, 2005) considered that the concentration on basic skills in pursuit of employability was "based on little more than a hunch" (p.6). Others, for example Wilson (2001, cited by Braggins and Talbot 2003, p.8) and Uden (2003) have suggested that an intense focus upon basic skills inevitably leads to the exclusion of other, higher level, provision. Prisoners too have questioned the primacy of basic skills in offender learning. Noel 'Razor' Smith (Smith, 2005) considered that they serve more as a tool for achieving performance targets than as a means to rehabilitate, and Charles Hanson (Hanson, 2008), another inmate, agrees and goes further in describing a "primary school level education" and "meaningless certificates"(no page no.).

Curriculum area three - Skills for Employment

Curriculum area three is prioritised for those who have not previously achieved a level 2 qualification and is focussed, like curriculum area two, upon offenders with approximately two years to serve until release. Funding is conditional upon the vocational area's current relevance and provision must be allied with skills that are likely to result in employment and be "driven by the needs of the labour market ... up to date and meet industry standards, that is, have national accreditation" (LSC, 2008b, p.44); to this end, from 2011 only those qualifications that have been approved by the Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) will appear on the QCF and be eligible for funding (LSC 2010). Similarly, level 3 provision must derived from the QCF and may only be funded if the course of study is the first level 3 to be undertaken by the offender and evidence is provided by IAG demonstrating "realistic progression to related employment opportunities" (LSC, 2008b, p.44)

This area has the potential to benefit a large proportion of the inmate population, well over 50 per cent of whom possess no qualifications at all (Bromley Briefings, 2009, p.16), and there is widespread support among inmates for practical courses (Prisoners Education Trust, 2009, p.15). However, in common with the skills for life offer, provision is targeted at those with approximately two years remaining to serve and so potentially excludes a significant section of the inmate population. This limitation is likely to adversely impact on many inmates but may particularly affect those with basic skills needs that must be addressed before progression to higher level study is possible.

For some, however, this provision may work well. Those serving sentences of between one and two years without basic skills needs but lacking formal qualifications, or with a need for vocational training may benefit from this area. Whilst there is no established link between offenders acquiring skills and securing employment (PAC, 2008), it is counterintuitive to believe that gaining vocational skills will not help to improve the prospects of some inmates, and being in employment has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of re-offending (LSC, 2009b).

For those with longer sentences this provision offers less opportunity since gaining skills relevant to today's labour market may be of little benefit to those who still have several years yet to serve. Far from delivering a "broad curriculum offer to arguably one of the 'hardest to reach' groups of potential learners" (LSC, 2008b, p.11), the SSC's involvement has resulted in a situation where it may be pointless to train long-serving prisoners with skills that could well be outdated or of little economic value by the time they are released. This may, in part, explain why long-servers are essentially excluded from the 'Skills for Employment' offer, and reinforces Ofsted's (2009, p.5) belief that offender education lacks explicit strategies to meet long-serving prisoners' learning and skills needs.

Even for those serving shorter sentences, attempting to achieve employment outcomes by means of ex ante influencing of course choices is dubious. The rapid developments of the modern world and the recent economic downturn make it difficult to predict what skills gaps may emerge and what jobs will be needed in the coming years (Jones and Crespin, 2009), and allowing industry which "always wants the opposite of what it is getting" (Smith, 2010, column 1141) to dictate education policy has been likened to following "the lurchings of a drunk" (Ibid.). Whilst it may be accepted that social inclusion is achievable through an educational trajectory that may lead to employment, the idea that some trajectories are superior to others in leading to employability is questionable.

Those already possessing higher level skills may also find that this area has little to offer since level 2 in prisons is "often rationed and covers limited subjects" (Jones, cited in UK Parliament, 2009, p.3), and whilst level 3 (vocational) study is included in this area, both Jones (Ibid.) and Ramsbotham (2010) identify that courses at this level are rarely seen which may result, in part, from the provisos on participation (previously cited). Although large numbers enter prison without qualifications or a job (Bromley Briefings, 2009) there are also many who were fully employed before conviction and have no need for vocational training. A recent survey of prisoners (Prisoners Education Trust, 2009) demonstrated that 48 per cent were in continuous employment prior to imprisonment (p.9) and that 46 per cent had qualifications above level 2 (p.8). While the survey results cannot claim to be representative of the entire prison population (since it might be assumed that those with higher levels of education were more likely to have responded than, for instance, those with low literacy skills), it is indicative of the existence of a significant proportion of the prison population for whom curriculum areas one, two and three are likely to be largely irrelevant.

Curriculum area five - Learning for living and work

This area is targeted towards learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities (LLDDs) needing to improve or develop their functional and fundamental skills (LSC 2007a) and is designated as high priority for funding (LSC, 2008b) having been upgraded from its earlier status as medium priority (LSC, 2007a). The strategy is drawn from the LSC's provision plan Learning for Living and Work (LSC, 2006) and the focus is upon developing/improving the skills - social, personal and life - and other soft skills such as communication required for employability and "...progression to further learning" (LSC, 2007a, p.50).

The decision to upgrade this area to high priority is welcome since providing support for LLDDs that enables them to progress onto other learning is particularly important within the prison setting which contains large numbers with significant educational needs. Research (Bromley Briefings, 2009, p.35) indicates that 20-30 per cent of offenders have learning difficulties/disabilities, and high numbers present mental health problems, with almost three quarters suffering from at least two disorders (Bromley Briefings, 2009, p.37).

Whilst it is not a given that all those with learning difficulties or mental health problems will be in need of, or will benefit from, the provision provided by this curriculum area, the LSC (2008b) recognises that "many prisoners will have had very difficult experiences with previous learning which might mean that they have difficulty accessing any learning provision without additional support" (p.46). Whether this support is to be provided in tandem with other learning or as a precursor to further learning is unclear from the OLASS specifications. However, if provision is intended to support other learning and the same preclusions, previously identified, are applied then it seems likely that those serving twelve months or less will be ineligible for support, whilst those serving much in excess of two years may well remain as low priority for provision until they near the end of their sentences. For some within this group, in common with those previously identified as disadvantaged by curriculum area two, an inability to access support and learning is likely to exclude them from other elements of the prison regime, to hamper their ability to interact with the criminal justice system and to debar them from taking part in opportunities to address their offending behaviour (Bromley Briefings, 2009, p.35).

Curriculum areas six - Higher level, and seven - Personal interest learning

The importance that OLASS attaches to curriculum areas six and seven is perhaps best evidenced by the exiguous description given of them in the core curriculum specifications (LSC, 2008b, p.47). These areas focus upon 'non-vocational' higher level (above level 2) studies for personal development, and personal interest learning and both are designated as low priority, with funds "limited to support such provision" (LSC 2007a, p.51). In principle these areas should attract 20 per cent of OLASS funding and be targeted both at learners wishing to gain non-vocational qualifications and those already possessing high-level qualifications whose needs, as recognised by (Ramsbotham, 2010), are unmet by the other curriculum areas. In practice, the constraints imposed by the funding mechanism, reliant upon 62 per cent achievement of 80 per cent of high priority provision, means that these low priority areas (with unhypothected funding) are at risk of being 'squeezed' out of the curriculum. Richard Daniels, the education manager at HMP Winchester, states that with pressure from above to achieve outcomes in the core subjects "it's obvious that you're going to extend core provision into non-core areas so that when the time comes to show your achievements you can 'cherry pick' from a wider range of provision" (Daniels, 2010). Without 'ring fencing' of provision, access to progression or continued learning may be unavailable to the many prisoners identified by the recent Inside Time report (Prisoners Education Trust ,2009, p.8) as already in possession of level 2, or higher, qualifications.

The presence of high numbers with such qualifications challenges OLASS's linear rationalist thesis that learning leads to more opportunities which in turn may be exploited in preference to anti-social or criminal activity; indeed, as Schuller (2009) points out, there may be some circumstances where increased learning may actually foster crime, providing the skills to both "commit crimes, and get away with them" (p.9). Many, however, are likely to wish to continue studying beyond level 2 for a variety of (honest) reasons. Some, realising that level 2 qualifications may be insufficient to secure a job (Jamieson, 2009, cited in UK Parliament, 2009, p.11) may wish to raise their skills to level 3 (considered by many, following the Leitch Report (2006), to be the benchmark for employability) in order to improve their prospects following release. Others, particularly long-serving prisoners, may have exhausted all other provision available and find themselves unable to progress further.

We live in straitened times, and while ideally it might be desirable to allow all offenders to progress as far as their abilities permit, practicalities dictate that funding must be limited and directed as effectively as possible. However, under the OLASS 3 arrangements many inmates may find that other areas of the core curriculum are either unavailable or of little relevance to them and resultantly risk becoming disengaged from the education process. If the purpose of offender education is viewed in terms of, for instance, sustaining aspiration, strengthening motivation, and enabling inmates to pursue a wide range of goals then the importance of this area becomes obvious. However, since the dominant remit is to equip offenders with low-level basic and vocational skills in the hope of increased employability and reduced recidivism it is easy to see why provision within this area is less valued. Some of the theories and discourses which surround this thinking will now be considered.

Wider implications

Prior to the LSC's involvement prison education had a strongly vocational stance. However under its aegis provision has become progressively more narrowly focussed until, with the advent of OLASS 3, a point has been reached where "... although not all learning delivery in prisons needs to have employment or employability as its key aim, the substantial majority should have." (LSC 2008a, p.18). This vocationalism has engendered a technical-instrumentalist approach with an outcomes-driven curriculum which dictates that objectives to meet specific competency needs are designated in advance and courses of study created to fulfil those objectives. In this way, outcomes are focussed upon the learning which is chosen for assessment and reward rather than being concerned with all aspects of learning, and the value of the skills deemed necessary assumes primacy over the academic worth of the curriculum.

The outcomes-driven approach can be attributed, in part, to the marketisation that has occurred in offender learning which has been accompanied by an operational need to measure the quality of service and the capacity and output of providers. Funding bodies and policy makers stress the importance of outputs, deemed "hard outcomes" by McGivney (2002, p.v), and these are considered the key measuring instrument of not only students' achievements, but also of the performance of professionals and institutions. Tyler (1949) was an early proponent of outcomes-based curriculum management and considered that the purpose of education was to "...bring about significant changes in the students' patterns of behaviour" (p.44). To achieve this, Tyler proposed, the desired outcomes should be clearly defined in terms of the specific behaviour to be expected after the educational process is complete; the curriculum is thus viewed as a means to achieve the end that has been defined.

An outcomes-based curriculum requires desired objectives to be identified, and the LSC has maintained a long-standing relationship with the SSCs for this purpose. Government policy (for instance, World Class Skills (DIUS, 2007b)) dictates that the LSC should fund only those vocational qualifications which the SSCs consider relevant and the SFA takes this tradition forward. The use of the QCF is likely to benefit some offenders but, as outlined previously, there is an inherent problem in relying on SSCs to dictate all prison education vocational content. Short-serving prisoners may profit from the QCF's ability, through its credit-based, modular approach, to ease their transition from prison to prison or from custody to mainstream education. Indeed, a recent study (cited by O'Brien, 2010) trialled the QCF in offender learning and found that, even with transfer between prisons common during study, programmes which formerly would not have resulted in any accreditation "enabled prisoners to have even small chunks of learning recognised" (p.32). The QCF's potential affordance of continued learning between establishments could therefore reduce the high number of courses abandoned after commencement, (failures that the NAO (2008, p.35) estimates might cost the LSC £30 million annually and which both the NAO and Ofsted (2009) attribute in large part to inter-prison transfers). The use of the QCF and the alignment of the core curriculum with the FLC may also assist inmates in building up credits towards further qualifications undertaken in mainstream FE following release.

However, over-reliance upon the SSCs to dictate QCF content has resulted in the vocational trajectory being essentially the only route available to most prisoners. Whilst proponents of vocationalism might claim that it is democratic, providing education for the masses rather than for an elitist few (Armitage, Bryant, Dunhill, Hammersley, Hayes, Hudson and Lawes, 1999), in practice, ethnic minorities and those from lower socio-economic groups are over-represented on vocational courses (Stanton, David, Hall, Brown, Ebdon, Kendall and Watters, 2008) just as they are within the prison population (Bromley Briefings, 2009; SEU 2002).

Finn (1987) asserts that while the middle classes get educated, the working classes are trained, and Marxist theory holds that the inequalities extant between the working and middle classes are physically reproduced through capitalist society's infrastructure and culturally reproduced through an ideological superstructure. Capitalism must, therefore, not only reproduce the means but also the relations of production (Althusser, 1984). Bowles and Gintis' (1981) 'Correspondence Theory' is influenced by this position and holds that schools reproduce social inequalities because they mirror economic inequality, and in this spirit Cohen (1984) maintains that vocationalism's real purpose is social control achieved through the creation of discipline and good behaviour. Dore (1976) refers to the 'hidden curriculum' in considering that vocationalism's primary purpose is to teach "...the virtues of punctuality, regularity, hard work, conformity to regulation and obedience to the instructions of superiors" (p.11).

Within this conception, the role of offender education can be viewed against the wider framework of society's attempts to 'reshape' offenders via the transmission of hegemonic values to engender and maintain social hierarchies. Foucault (1991) referred to this reshaping as the creation of 'docile bodies' and recognised the strong normalising pressures that institutions, such as prisons and schools, may exert on their subjects pressuring them into discipline, conformity and obedience: "a body is docile that may be subjected, used, transformed and improved" (p.136). As a result of this functionalist approach it may be that some inmates become more 'domesticated' and compliant, and whilst this may bring short-term advantages to prison management, it is questionable in the longer term whether this will increase inmates' employability and reduce their risk of re-offending.

For prisoners, custodial life is devoid of most of the choices that we, in the mainstream, have the agency to make, and yet after possibly years of conformity and obedience offenders are expected to reintegrate into outside society and act with autonomy in resisting the many pressures and temptations that may have engendered their succumbing to illegal behaviours in the first place. It is questionable whether excessive conformity and diminution of agency will assist them in this effort, and it is questionable also whether these are desirable traits in individuals destined for the post-modern workforce wherein decision-making and flexibility are considered desirable characteristics.

As an alternative approach, Davidson (1995) advocates a critical pedagogy that places emphasis on the importance of social and identity capital, and seeks to eliminate some of the conditions that may create criminality through the nurturing of political consciousness rather than by the domestication of offenders. If effective this politicalisation could result in some offenders becoming more cognisant of themselves as historical beings, capable of critical, moral and intellectual reasoning and with a concomitant increase in their sense of self. It is interesting to question whether the OLASS 3 curriculum is devoid of such possibilities and whether job training might enhance higher-order thinking skills. Such training might offer, for instance, analyses of workplace issues and opportunities to seek equity within the work environment, and would require a pedagogy that viewed individuals less as tools of the market and more as whole people capable, through experience and reflection, of changing and bettering themselves. Such a vision contrasts with the current framework wherein offenders are considered as capable of agency only through the restricted, market orientated lens provided by basic skills education and job training.


Although OLASS 3 differs from its predecessors in its use of a core curriculum, funding mechanism and the QCF, its mixture of learning and skills essentially reflects the same provision on offer since 2006. Assessing the likely future success of OLASS 3 should therefore be possible, in part, by considering past achievements in securing positive employment outcomes and concomitantly reducing recidivism. However, although all major OLASS documents produced since its inception echo the self-evident sentiments of Reducing Re-Offending Through Skills and Employment (DfES, 2005a), the success of past initiatives is unknown because the LSC does not collect data regarding employment outcomes for offenders (PAC, 2008, p.14). Similarly, although re-offending rates are known, if contested, (see, for instance, Dugan, 2008; Panorama, 2009) disaggregating the effects of educational provision from other contributory factors, such as such as drug treatment programmes or offending behaviour courses, that may also impact on re-offending is complex (PAC, 2008) making it difficult to judge the effectiveness of educational interventions. Given this, it is difficult not to conclude, as the 2005 Education and Skills Committee (2005) did, that the mixture of custodial learning and skills provision is based on little more than guesswork rather than on any sound, empirical evidence that it works.

The cost of re-offending is estimated at £11 billion annually (O'Brien, 2010, p.25), but there is a human cost also; while each crime has victims, offenders too are often extremely disadvantaged, socially and educationally, and the present curriculum risks disadvantaging them further. While low-level vocational and basic skills may be insufficient to assist these people back into employment, those at the lowest end of the skills ladder should be able to expect basic skills education, as a minimum, to be available to them throughout their time inside for as long as their need persists.

Since most offenders leave prison in a worse state than when they arrived, with the additional burden of a criminal record and having often lost jobs, homes or relationships, education's role should be one of assisting them to improve their prospects in every possible way. However, the OLASS 3 curriculum, through its prioritisation of provision and narrow focus on vocationalism, risks excluding a significant proportion of the prison population from learning. Given the high cost of re-offending, it would seem expedient to conduct robust research to discover not only what learning is likely to lead to employability but also what provision is likely to encourage and enable offenders to learn. A curriculum could then be developed that appeals as widely as possible to, and encourages participation from, the whole prison cohort. For many this might provide an opportunity to break the cycle of re-offending with its concomitant costs to both the individual and society.