New government data on English and Maths skills of prisoners

4 Nov 2015

In the first set of comparable figures for over a decade, the government has published data revealing that 46% of people entering the prison system have literacy skills no higher than those broadly expected of an 11 year old child. This is three times more than the 15% of people with similar skills levels in the adult population generally. 52% of those assessed have the equivalent capability in numeracy which compares with 49% of the general public.

The statistics also show that 46% of newly assessed prisoners have Level 1 and Level 2 literacy skills, (GCSE equivalent) which compares to 85% of the general population. In contrast, 39.8% of prisoners assessed had the equivalent level of numeracy skills compared with 50% of the general population. Also, almost a third (23,550) of those prisoners assessed self-reported having a learning difficulty or disability.

The report, OLASS English and Maths assessments: participation 2014/15, is based on the results of 74,300 prisoners assessed on entering prison since August 2014.

Prisoners’ Education Trust Chief Executive, Rod Clark, said: “At Prisoners’ Education Trust we have long called for better information on the education attainment levels of people in prison and therefore welcome this data.

It is the first time since 2002 that such a large group of prisoners have been assessed. The data is representative of people going into prison who are largely serving shorter sentences and therefore does not give a reliable picture of the prison population at any one time. Nevertheless, it does indicate that many prisoners have lower levels of literacy than the general public and that needs to be addressed.

"These figures represent individuals who were failed by the conventional education system the first time. So prisons need to provide new approaches to engage, incentivise and support them to get essential skills in English and Maths and then to keep learning.

“As the figures also show, 8,880 (12%) of those assessed are at the level of GCSE grade A*-C. Prisons also need to provide opportunities for them to further their education and gain accredited qualifications that employers are looking for. By doing so, they will inspire others and can provide additional support to staff by mentoring their peers.”

Editor’s Notes:

Case studies and interviews with former prisoners whose lives have been transformed by education and who have helped other prisoners to read are available on request.

For interviews, photos or further information please contact Susannah Henty, Media Manager:; 020 3752 5680 or visit


The OLASS English and Maths assessments: participation 2014/15 report was published today (4.11.2015) by the Skills Funding Agency and can be accessed via the government's website. Comparable figures were last published over a decade ago in 2002 in the Social Exclusion Unit’s (SEU) report ‘Reducing Re-offending of Ex-prisoners.’

This new data is taken from mandatory initial assessments on all new prisoners conducted by prison education providers since August 2014. This means that it assesses the attainment of prisoners going into prison, most of whom are serving short sentences, and is therefore not a reliable assessment for the snapshot population in prison at any one time which has a higher proportion of prisoners serving long sentences.

The full percentage break down of the figures in the report are as follows:






General Adult Population


General Adult population

Entry level 1 (level expected at school age 5-7)





Entry level 2 (level expected at school age 7-9)






Entry level 3 (level expected of a primary school leaver)





Level 1 (GCSE grade D-G)






Level 2 (GCSE grade A*-C)






Not known






The above figures on the attainment levels of the general adult population were published by BIS (2012), The 2011 Skills for Life Survey: A Survey of Literacy, Numeracy and ICT Levels in England

About Us

Since 1989, Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) has supported prisoners to engage in rehabilitation through learning. The charity does this by providing advice and funding for approximately 2,000 people per year for distance learning courses in subjects and levels not generally available in prisons. PET also carries out research, informed by prisoner learners, to improve prison education policies.

In 2012 PET launched the Prisoner Learning Alliance to work together with other expert organisations to champion learning for people in prison. Rod Clark, Chief Executive of PET, is a member of the expert panel for the review of prison education by Dame Sally Coates announced by the Secretary of State for Justice at: Statement to Parliament: Education in prison. The inquiry is seeking views and evidence until Friday 13 November 2015