It is often said that prisoners have very low levels of literacy and numeracy, that their educational backgrounds are weak and incomplete and that they lack the skills required to successfully navigate the job market. My own experience of prisoners differs sharply from this picture with many of the men (and I have worked almost exclusively with men) with whom I worked were articulate, intelligent and knowledgeable. Of course, my own experience offers anecdotal evidence and is in no small way related to the fact that I taught a philosophy class, a topic particularly appealing to those already engaged in education in prison. That being said, during the six years I have been engaged in prison education research, I have often heard that the statistics relating to the literacy and numeracy levels of prisoners are not sound and that the picture more complex. What then is the reality of the situation regarding literacy and numeracy among prisoners?
Brian Creese of the Centre for Education in the Criminal Justice System (CfE) at the University of Central London outlines the problems with current understanding of prisoners skills. He states that the oft-quoted statistics stem from a Social Exclusion Unit report published in 2002. This Report states that many prisoners’ basic skills were poor with 80 percent having the writing skills, 65 percent the numeracy skills, and 50 percent the reading skills at or below the level of an 11-year-old child. However, the Social Exclusion Unit report does not provide sufficient detail for a critical reader to assess the fidelity of these statistics. It is unclear where the figures have come from or how they have been collated. Creese’ investigation sheds some light into this area.
Using the figures from mandatory initial assessments of literacy and numeracy conducted in prison education departments, Creese provides a clearer insight into the skills of prisoners. The CfE used data from four educational providers, (including Novus) and compared the levels of literacy and numeracy in various prisons to the national levels (as measured by the Skills for Life national survey conducted by BIS in 2012). The figures show that 85 percent of general population have literacy skills at L1 or L2 compared to only 50 percent of prisoners. At lower levels the gap between national literacy levels and prison literacy levels steadily increase from just a couple of percent at Entry level 1 to over 30 percent difference between those achieving level 2 in prison compared to those achieving level 2 nationally. The findings regarding numeracy however are very different. Up to level 1, prisoners out-perform national statistics with 79.4 percent prisoners having Entry Level 3 numeracy skills and above, compared to 76.4 percent of the general population. It should be noted that this gap is much larger up to Level 1 where prisoners outperform the national average consistently. However, at Level 2, only 9% of prisoners are recorded as having achieved level 2 whilst 21.8% of the population have. Bearing in mind these statistics, it seems that we should be careful before accepting, and then consistently reiterating, official statistics.