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Brain Cells: Listening to Prisoner Learners

'Brain Cells', the new report from Prisoners Education Trust, considers the varied elements of prisoner learning, based on a survey of 500 serving prisoners.

The survey asked a wide range of questions including about current levels of support for students, motivations for undertaking education and areas that could be improved. With the start of the new OLASS 4 education contracts in prisons, the report is a timely consideration of the needs of prisoner learners, with a number of practical and policy recommendations for improving provision across the prison estate.

Click here to download the report and see below for the executive summary.

Chapter One: Learner Voice

• Learner voice refers to ‘developing a culture and processes whereby learners are consulted and proactively engage with
shaping their own educational experiences’1. This survey demonstrates that prisoners have something to say about their
experiences of learning in prison and how it could be improved to better meet their needs. 40% of prisoners said they had
not had an opportunity to feedback about their learning experience.
• Over a quarter of respondents want to be actively engaged through learner forums and to be trained in participation skills.
Over half want to meet with policy makers directly.

Chapter Two: Learning Needs

• Nearly 80% of respondents had qualifications when they came into prison, including 45% with a GCSE. As a result, 41% felt
the level of courses on offer in prison were poor.
• This report questions the official statistics about prisoners’ educational profiles. It makes the case for reviewing this data and
providing more opportunities for higher level learning so prisoners, particularly those with longer sentences, can progress.
• 20% of respondents self reported difficulties with learning, however a third were unable to give their difficulties a specific label
indicating a lack of screening and official diagnosis.
• This survey also reveals that BAME respondents achieved fewer qualifications in prison than white respondents across the full
spectrum of qualifications.

Chapter Three: Learning Support

• Learning in the prison environment can be hard; success is more likely if prisoner learners have the support and facilities they
• Only 18% of respondents reported having contributed to their individual learning plan.
• 84% of respondents received support from prison education staff. 42% of respondents said they had received support from
prison officers with their learning. Half had received learning support from other prisoners. 43% felt support for distance
learning in their prison was poor.
• The survey responses indicate that increased access to computers and a wider range of books, materials and resources
would help prisoners with their learning.

Chapter Four: Why Learn?

• Nearly 70% of prisoners indicate that improving their employability is a motivation and 73% of respondents think their learning
has improved their chances of getting a job. However the survey indicates that the benefits of learning are much wider than
• 82% of respondents felt learning had increased their ‘ability and desire for learning’, therefore progression pathways are key
to continue this momentum. This will also enable prisoners to reach levels of education that will improve their employment
• 65% of respondents said they wanted to continue learning after release. However the respondents saw funding, housing
problems and lack of advice as barriers to continuing their education outside the gate. Over half of prisoners want to start
their own business.

Chapter Five: Who Should Pay?

• The survey asked respondents for their thoughts about making contributions towards the cost of distance learning courses.
71% of respondents thought that prisoners should not have to pay anything as they do not earn enough, however 59% of
respondents said they that they would take out a student loan for certain courses.