Committee of Public Accounts: Press Notice

Meeting needs? The Offenders' Learning and Skills Service

Publication of the Committee's 47th Report, Session 2007-08

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

"A large proportion of prisoners and offenders serving community sentences have a desperate need of improved learning and skills, if they are to get a job on release. Half of those in custody have no qualifications and nearly 40 per cent have a reading age lower than that of a competent 11- year old. But progress has been stymied both by inadequate joint working between the bodies responsible for delivering learning and skills to offenders and by failures in the delivery process itself.

"The Offenders' Learning and Skills Service was set up to overcome long-standing problems in the delivery of skills and learning for offenders. In practice, it has failed in almost every respect.

"Funding is distributed between prisons without reference to need. A quarter of prisoners have no screening or assessment for learning and skills, making it very difficult to plan useful provision. There are no consistent records of the progress which individual prisoners make on their courses and the lack of a core curriculum also means that that offenders moved from one prison to another can find themselves unable to continue their courses. And much more needs to be done to equip offenders with skills which realistically prepare them for jobs in the local labour market.

"The different agencies involved in this, including the Learning and Skills Council, the Prison Service and the Department, must work together to sort out this counterproductive and wasteful situation."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 47th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Learning and Skills Council, the National Offender Management Service and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, examined building a learning and skills service that will help increase employability and reduce re-offending.

Giving offenders opportunities to improve their basic and vocational skills can enhance their prospects of getting a job and is a major part of the Government's policy for reducing re-offending. Many offenders have severe learning needs: half of those in custody have no qualifications and almost 40% have a reading age beneath that expected of a competent 11 year old. In 2003, Ministers decided that the Learning and Skills Council (the LSC) should take over responsibility for a new Offenders' Learning and Skills Service which, after piloting, the LSC rolled out across England in July 2006. The intention was that the LSC, with its experience in commissioning mainstream further education, would raise the quality of provision. The new service was also expected to provide a single, integrated service for offenders in custody and the community irrespective of the organisational boundaries between the prison and probation services.

Delivering learning and skills to offenders is challenging, because the operational requirements of the Criminal Justice System take priority, and because offenders often have other problems such as mental health difficulties and dependence on alcohol or drugs. Nevertheless, the new Service set out to overcome many of the long standing problems with providing offenders with effective and useful skills training. In practice it has not succeeded.

Tensions in attempting to reconcile different organisational objectives have prevented progress and there continues to be confusion about where resources ought to be prioritised. The distribution of funding between prison establishments is based on historical allocations and funds are not necessarily targeted at meeting current learning needs. Shared priorities and performance measures have not been clearly articulated, and there is a risk that existing performance incentives do not encourage those delivering the Service to tackle the hardest to reach prisoners with serious literacy and numeracy needs. The programmes currently on offer are likely to be of limited practical use to prisoners serving less than 12 months, and reconviction rates for these prisoners are not improving. Contracts for learning providers do not incentivise them to increase offenders' employability and reduce their risk of re-offending, as payments are made to providers irrespective of offender take-up, attendance or achievement.

The National Audit Office's examination of prisoners' learning records showed that there was no record of assessment for a quarter of prisoners. Learning plans are frequently deficient, with a third not specifying the courses to be undertaken, and about the same proportion not recording progress. Only around a fifth of prisoners with serious literacy or numeracy needs enrol on a course that would help them. Although enrolment is voluntary, more could be done to motivate offenders to take up available opportunities, for example, by involving prison and probation officers and providing access to earned privileges. There is currently no core curriculum, and inconsistencies in the courses on offer make continuation of learning difficult when prisoners transfer between prisons. The prison service and education providers are not working adequately together to transfer learning records when prisoners move between prisons or into the probation service, and this hampers continuity of learning.

The LSC wants to make changes to the courses currently on offer, but there is insufficient information on what impact different sorts of training have on employment and re-offending rates. It is not working effectively with the probation service to record employment outcomes for offenders supervised in the community. Research to measure the effect of different factors that may impact on re-offending is underway, but results will not be available until 2012. Meanwhile, more could be done to involve employers and align skills training on offer with gaps in local labour markets. This work could be informed by early sight of emerging research findings, conclusions from smaller research projects and examples of local good practice.