Literacy, numeracy and libraries

19 Nov 2015

Nina Champion, Prisoners' Education Trust's Head of Policy, reports on the latest skills assessments in literacy and numeracy, and argues that prison libraries, as places to support learners, must be protected: 

"After waiting more than a decade for more data on prisoners’ educational abilities all of a sudden this month two reports are published within days of each other.

At PET we welcome these new statistics, and responded to the government’s report OLASS English and Maths assessments: participation 2014/15, revealing 46% of people entering prison have English literacy skills of broadly of a primary school leaver whilst just 15% of the adult population are at that level. To address this, PET would like to see prisons find more engaging ways to teach, incentivise and support them to get essential skills in English and Maths. Read our press release to see the full breakdown of these statistics and PET’s response.

Following this report, Brian Crease from the UCL’s Institute of Education has published a new report on literacy and numeracy, an assessment of the English and maths skills levels in England. These results draw on the same data source and are very similar to the statistics published by government, but this report also considers how the results vary by education provider, age and gender. The IoE says this initial first report is the start of a project which will systematically collect data nationally and at prison level to gain further understanding of prisoners’ attainment levels.

For example this report suggests that women have slightly higher skills in English, whereas men show better skills in maths. The report also suggests that prisoners assessed in category D prisons have higher literacy and numeracy skills, suggesting that improvements may have been made during their sentence.

The report states: “Adults with these low levels are by far the hardest to address, and policy makers need to be aware that sustained educational effort is required to bring adults at these levels up to an acceptable standard.”

This data has been collected thanks to a new system of mandatory initial assessments, which came into force in August 2014, for everyone entering the prison system. As such it is not a reliable assessment for the static prison population and in particular, picks up assessments of the many prisoners entering for short sentences and under-represents those prisoners who are serving longer sentences. We would therefore like to see more analysis of all groups in prison, to ensure educational policies and resources can reflect the needs of all men and women in prison.

Learning in the library

At a recent European Prison Education Association meeting, I was shocked to hear that in Holland prisons are now closing their libraries after the recent introduction of e-readers.

This is also a topical issue in the community. Just this week, London’s Evening Standard newspaper reported on protests against proposed cuts of libraries in Lambeth whilst local authorities across the country need to make further savings to their budgets, so now more than ever, all libraries have to show their worth and impact.

So when I addressed the annual prison libraries conference organised by Cilip (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) on Wednesday 18th November 2015 I asked the audience of prison librarians to consider what value their library has for their community.

Taking inspiration from the campaign to save Lambeth libraries, I asked the audience to write messages on flower shaped post-it notes on why they think their library is important.

A beautiful collage of inspirational messages emerged showing how libraries help individuals blossom and reach their potential. In a discussion with the audience, many were keen to share how a library is more than a book dispensing service and that it is the people who run the library as well as the books that make them so valuable . Several themes emerged:

A safe space

The biggest theme that came out was the sense that the library was a ‘safe’ space, physically and emotionally. Prisoners had told librarians that the library made them ‘feel like a human’.   Visiting the library was a valued opportunity to talk to a ‘real person’. It had been described as ‘a place away from the chaos’ and one described how a had been having problems on the wing and had asked to come to the library to calm down another was told by a prisoner that the library was his life line and had helped him to stay sane. Another described it as being ‘a space that isn’t like the rest of the prison’ as it was ‘civilised and treated prisoners as human beings’. One librarian read out a quote from Simon, a prisoner who had worked as a Library Orderly, he said:

“Libraries are havens. Their walls provide peace and safety. Their books provide stimulation and escape. They are places of solitude and community, self-development and support. In prison, they are a window to the outside world. They are a taste of normality. A respite from the turmoil. They are humane and their importance cannot be overstated.”

A place of learning

Another important theme was of the library as a place of learning. Not only does it provide a quiet place to study and access to learning resources for everyone (from audio books to books in foreign languages), but many libraries offer a plethora of formal and informal learning opportunities, activities and events including Shannon Trust Turning Pages peer mentoring, Reading Ahead scheme, prison reading groups, Storybook mums and dads, creative writing classes, author visits and advice services. Two librarians said the prisoner-occupied position of ‘library orderly’ was seen as one of the best jobs in prison. Linking qualifications to the orderly role, such as peer mentoring and customer service, can also help accredit the learning that takes place in these roles.

At PET, our Access to Learning team told me that ever more frequently librarians are becoming our contacts for coordinating the distance learning courses we offer prisoners, rather than the education departments. Some librarians described how they help distance learners access funding from PET, promote courses, promote course prospectuses and PET’s curriculum, photocopy assignments, facilitate calls to tutors, offer access to ICT, offer study skills courses, find and print out online research, help students find books for further reading, facilitate study groups and perhaps most crucially, provide motivation and support to encourage people to progress to higher level learning that many may not have thought themselves capable of.

A source of information & support

Librarians also described the range of information they disseminate. One librarian reeled off the names of different organisations who are invited to give surgeries in the library on different days offering advice ranging from housing to prisoners’ legal rights. One prisoner said the library was ‘the only place that will help’.

A source of inspiration

One librarian explained that when access to library was limited, and impacted by overcrowding and staff shortages, prisons attempted to solve this by equipping wings with a small selection of books. Although this offered something, it was certainly not a library experience. Librarians and library orderlies can help with suggestions of what to read for the right reading level. One librarian described the joy of helping someone pick out their first book. Visitors to prison libraries can also be a source of inspiration, as our guest speaker L.J. Flanders, author of Cell Workout, is testament to. He described his experience of using the prison library for inspiration for his book and he has since become a role model to others when he visited HMP Thameside library recently to speak to a group of prisoners, including some who were frequent gym visitors who never previously stepped foot in the library. PET can vouch for his success as prisoners have already written to us applying for distance learning personal trainer courses, after being inspired by reading L.J’s story in Inside Time.

A space to socialise and contemplate the future

Libraries are also about people, not just books. Prisoners describe libraries as ‘relaxing and sociable’. Given that prisons are places of confinement and isolation, it is important that within them prisoners are offered a relaxed environment where they can interact socially in a positive manner.

The audience also highlighted the library’s offer as ‘a contemplative space’. With many prisoners at a junction in their life where they need to think hard about their future choices, both in prison and after release, spaces that promote ‘contemplation’ are clearly critical in that process.

A Window on the outside world

Finally, and perhaps most poignantly, all agreed that the library provides a ‘window on the outside world’. Many prisoners describe reading and spending time in the library as somewhere that ‘Transports me to another place’, ‘Doesn’t feel like prison’ and offers ‘A bit of the outside in prison’. This is not surprising given the number of outside charities, agencies and organisations prison libraries generally engage with, as well as the content of the books themselves in connecting readers with other communities, experiences and stories.

As the Coates Review into prison education now considers evidence from across the sector, at PET we hope that the important role prison libraries offer is recognised and these spaces are protected.