PLA sets out theory of change for prison education

9 Jun 2016

Justice Secretary Michael Gove said in a recent speech to prison Governors: “We want individuals who leave prison to be changed characters [...] to have become assets contributing to society rather than liabilities who bring only costs.” But how does that ‘change’ process happen and what role can education play? 

The Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA) aims to stimulate debate around these issues in its new report: What is prison education for? A theory of change exploring the value of learning in prison. Launched on 10 June, the report examines how we can measure the benefit of education in prison, and how we can improve its provision. 

The research focused on listening to the views and personal experiences of former prisoner learners who reflected on the role education had played in their rehabilitation journey. The PLA found the benefits fell into five main themes, shown below: 

Five benefits grid

In this way, education benefits both the individual and the institution. For the prison, education can help ‘humanise’ an environment that is often characterised by confinement, coersion and overcrowding; creating a culture of learning and peer support that carries through the whole prison.

For the individual, engaging in education can lead to positive changes within custody: improved wellbeing and behaviour for example. It can create a shift in identity, an impetus towards change and a sense of hope. After release, this can empower people to engage with their communities and make a positive contribution to their families and society.

Nina Champion, Head of Policy at Prisoners’ Education Trust co-authored What is prison education for? with James Noble from charity think tank New Philanthropy Capital.

Nina says the report aims to broaden the idea of what education is and what its benefits might be.

We tend to measure the success of education in custody by qualifications or attendance, and whether it improves employment prospects after release," she says. "We know that preparing prisoners for work is vital, but this research reveals that are many other benefits to be gained through education. Being part of a supportive learning environment can help someone unlock their potential, move away from crime and contribute to their families and communities.

In the research process, teachers, practitioners and former prisoners were asked to choose words that best described the benefit of education in prisons, which was then turned into a wordle.

Stephen, a former prisoner who contributed to the research, said the change in identity was a particularly important benefit for him.

“Prison reinforces the offender identity and [the idea that] things need to be done to you to fix you up. Education gave me options in my own mind, the chance to form a different identity: student, scholar, citizen, employee. Education reinforces that new identity. Identity is important because it influences behaviour and actions.”

Another learner, Patrick, said: “Education gave me empathy. Before I didn’t care about anyone else or myself. I care about people now and I care about myself.”

The report is designed to be used by researchers, teachers, Governors, policy makers and inspectors. It comes at a prescient time for prison education, with prison Governors set to gain autonomy over the education provided in their institutions

We hope Governors and education providers use these ideas to formulate a holistic vision, strategy and delivery model for education across the whole of their prison to make the most of its wide ranging benefits for individual prisoners, as well as creating a culture of learning in their establishments,” says Nina.

The full copy of the report can be read here. To request print copies, please email:

What is prison education for? is designed to stimulate debate and discussion. The PLA and New Philanthropy Capital welcome responses from everyone connected to the prison sector. Please complete this online survey to share your views and contribute to the report's development.

Slides from Nina's presentation at the Open University "What is prison education for?" conference on 10 June can be viewed here