Blog: The Prison Education System – Supporting Speakers of English as a Second or Additional Language

Following publication of the Education Select Committee’s report on the prison education system, The Bell Foundation’s latest blog considers the importance of language support in prisons and highlights some of the practical tools available.

Last month the prison education system was brought into sharp focus, with the publication of the final report from the House of Commons Education Committee. Following the inquiry, ‘Education: Are Prisoners Being Left behind?’, to which The Bell Foundation submitted evidence, the much-anticipated report has called for an ‘overhaul’ of the current system.

The report echoes the calls of many over recent years for widespread reform, most notably in the 2016 Coates Review. It highlights a lack of progress to date, and, in some areas, a worsening of the situation, an issue that has been compounded by the covid-19 pandemic.

It also recognises education as key to rehabilitation, a route through which people in prison can learn new skills, gain valuable qualifications, and boost their chances of gaining employment. It also highlights the wider benefits of education – of increased mental health, self-confidence, and behaviours while in prison.

At the same time, the Foundation is engaging with the Ministry of Justice who are consulting with the sector on market engagement regarding the new contracts for delivery of education in adult prisons, where the focus is heavily on education as a route to employment.

For speakers of English as a second or additional language (ESL), a lack of language support can create additional hurdles to accessing services and information within prisons. This is one of the findings from the recent research series published by the Foundation, Language Barriers in the Criminal Justice System, which includes a range of resources for supporting ESL learners in different contexts.

This ground-breaking research identified a range of systemic issues that leave staff throughout the criminal justice system ill-equipped to respond to language diversity, and speakers of ESL, be they victims, witnesses, suspects, defendants, or people with convictions, without the support they need.

The report recognises the need to identify and support the diverse learning needs of prisoners, and in a small, but welcome statement asserts that ‘assessment and resources for people with ESOL needs should also be considered’. For speakers of ESL, the availability of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes is a particularly important part of rehabilitation, providing the skills critical to communicating within prison and to thriving upon release. It is also important to ensure that other education and skills courses are made accessible, by reducing language barriers to participation and embedding English provision within vocational courses.

Through the Criminal Justice Programme, the Foundation works to provide practical tools and guidance to support practitioners working with individuals who speak ESL. These resources are evidence-based, shaped by the experience and expertise of our partners and users.

One such resource is the ESOL Tutor Resource Pack, designed to support tutors working in the secure estate, as well as community rehabilitation and probation settings. This free resource combines language learning with wider capabilities in ‘civic’, ‘financial’ and ‘health’, ensuring it is relevant to the lives of people with convictions, and includes activities suitable for all levels.

One of the challenges faced across the criminal justice system is a lack of data on the number of ESL speakers, and consequently, a lack of clarity around ESL needs and whether these needs are being met.

Within prisons, whilst literacy and numeracy levels are currently measured upon entry, English language proficiency is not, meaning a vital first step is missed in assessing and then providing appropriate ESL support. The Education Committee report emphasises the need for a rigorous assessment process to evaluate the educational needs of prisoners. A key part of this must also be the measurement and recording of ESL needs.

The Foundation has produced a free, easy to use screening tool for use as part of the induction process in prisons. This resource is designed to be used by any member of staff to identify individuals with English language needs, who can then be referred for further assessment or support.

Find out more

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