Guidance

Education in prison

A summary of evidence relating to prison education programmes and whether they improve outcomes for prisoners.

Self-selection bias is a common problem in research in this area. This is because prisoners who chose to participate in educational programs may be different to those who don’t in ways that research can’t measure. For example, they may be more motivated or more proactive about planning for their post release futures. So some caution is needed when interpreting findings. However, research evidence strongly suggests that education in prison can help people desist (move away) from offending.

This applies to both academic and vocational education. Academic education is learning to read and write through to qualifications like GCSEs and degrees. Vocational education involves learning skills for specific jobs or industries.

What do we know?

Does prison education reduce reoffending?

The most recent comprehensive evidence is from North America. This indicates an associated reduction in reoffending of around 13 percentage points1. Both academic and vocational education can improve reoffending outcomes.

Research on the impact of prison education in England and Wales looks very promising. The most recent and large-scale national study reported a 7.5% reduction in one-year reoffending rates2. More good quality research is needed.

Does prison education improve post-release employment?

International evidence suggests education can increase the chances of employment after leaving prison. Academic and vocational education appear to bring about similar improvements in employability.

How does education help improve outcomes?

The existing statistical evidence does not tell us what it is about education itself that improves outcomes. Plausible suggestions, supported by qualitative research, are that education might help in these ways:

  • improving employability, and hence the likelihood of obtaining a meaningful job, which in turn improves reoffending outcomes
  • it may have a transformational effect that helps people to move away from crime, and people may come to see themselves, their capability, their futures, the world and others differently
  • it may also help prisoners cope with the negative effects of life in prison, or experience a different routine or culture

What we don’t yet know?

The research is not yet sophisticated enough to tell us:

  • which specific type of academic or vocational education achieves the best outcomes
  • what type of delivery method achieves the best outcomes
  • how much education is needed to make a difference

Further reading

Ministry of Justice & Department for Education (2017) Exploring the outcomes of prisoner learners: analysis of linked offender records from the Police National Computer and individualised learner records.

Unlocking Potential: A review of education in prison (MoJ 2016). Dame Sally Coates’ report and recommendations following her review of education in prison.

References

  1. Evaluating the effectiveness of correctional education: A meta-analysis of programs that provide education to incarcerated adults Davis, L. M., Bozik, R., Steele, J. L., Saunders, J., & Miles, J. N. V. (2013) RAND Corporation.
  2. Ministry of Justice, Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, Sheffield Hallam University and London Economics (2018) Evaluation of prisoner learning: Initial impacts and delivery. The aim of the research was a process and impact evaluation of prisoner education. Looking specifically at the impacts on post-release reoffending, employment, benefit dependency and learning outcomes amongst Offender Learning and Skills Service learners in phases 3 and 4 (OLASS3 and OLASS4), as well as changes made to service delivery under OLASS4 (which started in August 2012).

This page summarises the available evidence base and is informed by independent academic peer review. It does not represent Ministry of Justice or Government policy.

Published 15 May 2019