New report published ‘Improving Language, Improving Lives: Supporting ESOL in the Secure Estate’

The Bell Foundation, Learning and Work Institute and De Montfort University have, today, published a new report ‘Improving Language, Improving Lives: Supporting ESOL in the Secure Estate’

The Bell Foundation, Learning and Work Institute and De Montfort University have, today, published a report which investigates the needs of prisoners with English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) in the secure estate and how to improve identification of, and support for, these prisoners. The report ‘Improving Language, Improving Lives: Supporting ESOL in the Secure Estate’; which is the outcome of a larger project between the three organisations, has found a lack of awareness, data and support for staff (both teaching and prison officers) negatively impacts both the identification of ESOL needs, prison security and access to rehabilitation initiatives.  In order to improve identification of need and support for ESOL teachers the project has created an ESOL screening tool and resources, the impact of which are documented in the report.

Previous research found that even though poor English language proficiency has an impact on someone’s experience in prison, on prison safety and also on people’s ability to access rehabilitation services, there is typically a lack of screening and therefore little data or awareness of the number and needs of prisoners who have English as a second or other language. The project team has created a screening tool to facilitate an effective, consistent and on-going assessment of ESOL needs, which can be used by Prison Officers, to support prisoners to integrate more quickly into their new environment.  With support from the Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service this tool was circulated to all 25 regional Heads of Learning, Skills and Employment in England, and is currently in use in prisons across the country.

The project also developed a free to download ESOL Tutor Resource Pack (Finalist in the British Council ELTons Award for Local Innovation 2019) to support tutors in providing lessons which are relevant to the context and needs of ESOL learners.

Diana Sutton, Director, The Bell Foundation, commissioners of the assessment tool, said:

“There is very little information about the nature and scale of ESOL needs in prison as this is not routinely assessed and the data is not captured nationally. When prisoners with an ESOL need first arrive in prison, understanding what educational support is available and accessing it can be a significant challenge. Without the right tools, reception or other prison staff may also struggle to feel confident in being able to identify a prisoner’s language need and signpost them to an ESOL class. This partnership has developed a tool to help prison staff better identify ESOL needs, and ESOL teaching and learning resources to support tutors who work in prisons and rehabilitation centres. This is helping both those working in prisons, and prisoners and ex-offenders themselves who have English as a second or additional language."

Alex Stevenson, Head of English, Maths and ESOL at Learning and Work Institute said:

“The acute need for ESOL teaching and learning resources in the secure estates was identified during the first stages of the project. We used the Citizens’ Curriculum – a locally-led, innovative and holistic model of learning which taps into what really engages and motivates learners to learn, by putting their active participation in shaping the content at the centre – to inspire the development of the resources. Through this project and wider work, it is clear that the approach has a real impact on learners’ motivation, social and civic engagement and self-efficacy. It is fantastic to see how well-received and valued the resources have been by practitioners and stakeholders in the sector – demonstrating that the need for high quality, engaging resources for ESOL learners in prisons has been met.”

Ross Little from De Montfort University’s Criminology and Criminal Justice programme said:

“It was great to be a part of an innovative and forward-thinking programme focused on making a positive difference for ESOL work in prisons, often a hidden issue in the justice system. The language screening tool helps in two key ways: it helps staff working in prison identify language needs more easily and more quickly and also helps provide an evidence base for the future about the learning provision needed in prisons.”

The report concludes by making a number of recommendations for policy-makers, education providers and prisons which are summarised below:

Key recommendation for policy-makers:

  • Ensure the effective and consistent collection of ESOL needs across the secure estate

Key recommendations for education providers:

  • Work with prison staff to embed the screening tool and record outcomes for both learners and for prison staff, to help ensure that new arrivals are signposted to ESOL or other relevant support quickly
  • Train prison officers in the use of the ESOL screening tool, to help them identify ESOL needs
  • Download and use the free Improving Language, Improving Lives: Resources for ESOL Tutors
  • Work with prison governors, to highlight the ESOL needs in the prison and the resources required to respond to this
  • Ensure that ESOL tutors have access to professional learning and development opportunities

Key recommendations for prisons:

  • Embed early usage of the screening tool, for example on reception, to identify and record prisoners’ language needs
  • Work with education staff to train wider prison staff on how to identify an ESOL need using the screening tool and training materials


Notes to Editor:

  1. Media enquiries regarding this announcement should be directed to Julia Shervington, Communications Manager, The Bell Foundation, or 01223 275503.
  2. 'Improving Language, Improving Lives: Supporting ESOL in the Secure Estate' project is commissioned by The Bell Foundation, and jointly delivered by Learning and Work Institute and De Montford University’s criminology and criminal justice programme.
  3. Explore the short summary of project findings
  4. The ESOL Tutor Resource Pack to support tutors working in the secure estate and in community rehabilitation/probation settings can be downloaded for free
  5. The Bell Foundation aims to overcome exclusion through language education by working with partners on innovation, research, training and practical interventions. The Criminal Justice Programme aims to break down the language barrier to accessing justice and rehabilitation for individuals in contact with the criminal justice system for whom English is an Additional Language.
  6. Learning and Work Institute is a policy, research and development organisation dedicated to lifelong learning, full employment and inclusion. Our work is aimed at achieving positive change for individuals and communities to secure increased access to learning and skills and improved employability and career progression.
  7. De Montfort University leads the way in developing the public good agenda in UK higher education and was named the Sunday Times University of the Year for Social Inclusion.