Compared to the general public, the education levels in UK prisons are disproportionately poor. For example, according to the Ministry of Justice, over 90% of adults entering prison between April 2021 and March 2022 had maths skills below a passing GCSE (equivalent to a grade 3/D or below). While the available statistics for the general population are not as up to date, the corresponding figure for UK adults was put at 78% by the 2011 Skills for Life survey. This finding is supported by a 2019 Ipsos Mori poll, and can be compared to even wider disparities in basic literacy skills. Nearly 70% of prisoners are admitted to prisons with entry-level maths skills, corresponding to maths skills below a GCSE level.
As well as providing functional skills, education is known to have an impact on the reintegration of formerly imprisoned people in society. However, as highlighted in research from the UCL Institute of Education in 2016, there is not always consensus on how to carry this out. While education is compulsory for those of school age in prisons, provision of adult education varies according to government priorities. Most current efforts to educate the prison population focus on employability after release, rather than personal development, but Ofsted reports have shown that this is inadequate, with this education often focusing too much learning only for qualifications, and frequently not engaging with the prisoners most in need of support.
Even during their imprisonment, prisoners who struggle with numbers and reading are put at a disadvantage: much of prison life, from arranging doctor’s appointments to replacing a broken mattress, is governed by applications, commonly referred to as ‘apps’. Prisoners lacking basic skills will not only struggle to maintain their finances, but will find accessing prison services much more difficult.
This not a new problem, and there have been many attempts to address it. In 1997, Christopher Morgan founded Shannon Trust, a prison education charity, inspired by a series of letters between Morgan and Tom Shannon, a man serving a 30-year sentence for murder in Oakwood prison near Wolverhampton. Shannon Trust was founded on the principle of a peer-led approach to learning, with prisoners tutoring those who struggled to read. Following a successful trial run in Wandsworth prison, the trust now helps thousands of learners in prisons across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and more recently, has started to offer mentoring in numeracy skills.
Hoping to get an insight into the state of maths education in UK prisons, we sat down with Dan Chadder, a facilitator for Shannon Trust, at HMP Channings Wood in Newton Abbot, Devon. Channings Wood is a Category C men’s prison with a strong focus on rehabilitation, according to a 2022 government report. Through Dan, we also managed to speak to three prisoners three prisoners at HMP Channings Wood who participate in the numeracy skills programme. We cannot use their real names, so refer to them by the aliases Ben, Sam and Callum.
About the programme
A week before our phone call with the three participants, we caught up with Dan via Zoom.
Dan has been working with Shannon Trust as a facilitator since September 2022, having worked in the prison system for four years prior to this. After learning about the low literacy rates exhibited by prisoners, and seeing the work the trust were doing and the positive effect the mentoring sessions had, he decided to join the team. With his experience in peer-led programmes, he facilitates the mentoring sessions: matching learners to their mentors, training the mentors, and managing the programme in general. He best describes the scheme as “one-to-one learning, no tests, prisoner-to-prisoner, out of the classroom environment.”
The maths programme at Channings Wood began a couple of months after Dan joined the team in November 2022. Despite being established only recently, the programme has hit the ground running; he told us: “The maths programme has been really popular since it was introduced back in November… I’ve got a waiting list now, with people trying to sign on. I can’t keep up with the demand.”
We talked about some of the challenges facing the trust: for individual mentor–learner pairs, a huge issue is the logistics of organising sessions. Dan told us that the mentors could struggle to “find a suitable learning environment”, adding that “it’s not quiet” in the prison, so it can be difficult to find an area to concentrate.
When the mentoring scheme was first being introduced, there was a worry that the trust might face “scepticism from officers” and that some might feel that the participants were “not taking part for the right reasons” or were using the scheme as an excuse to get out of their cells. Any resistance like this would make it difficult to organise the sessions, and hard to create a comfortable environment for learning.
However, according to Dan, this did not become an issue: “Prison staff have been really supportive, especially as the programme has grown and they’ve seen the positive impact it is having on prisoners.” He also told us that support from the governor of the prison has been important, as this support trickles down and confirms the legitimacy of the scheme to officers, leading to stronger support from prison staff. Dan stressed the importance of this, adding: “You need that support from the top.”
In conversation with three participants
On the day of the phone interview, Dan introduced us to the three participants: a mentor for the trust who we’re calling Callum; and two of his learners who we’ll call Ben and Sam.
When entering Channings Wood, all prisoners are assessed on their numeracy and literacy skills. The numeracy test targets topics like angles, fractions and decimals, telling the time, and arithmetic; while the literacy test assesses their reading and writing skills.
Based on his score in this initial assessment, Callum was referred to Dan as a potential mentor. He was then interviewed and references from wing staff were collected to assess his general behaviour and suitability for the role. As Dan told us: “Choosing the right mentor is based off their assessment as well as their general behaviour, attitude, and most importantly their passion and drive to make a difference to people.” Following a screening from the security department, Callum was offered the paid mentorship role within the trust.
Ben and Sam, on the other hand, were referred to Dan based on this assessment as prisoners who would benefit from mentorship under the Shannon Trust scheme. Dan assigned them to Callum based on their compatibility and on Callum’s availability.
Mentors teach maths or literacy (or often, like Callum, both) in one-to-one sessions in the wing, explaining concepts and working through solutions together. During the maths sessions Ben and Sam work through a set of five books with Callum, with each book increasing in difficulty. There are no tests; the goal of the programme is to give the participants a stronger set of maths and/or English skills which they can then continue to pursue if they choose.
Callum has been working as a mentor with the programme since he arrived at Channings Wood in October. He works with around six or seven learners at a time, who he meets either daily or every other day. With each session lasting around 30 to 45 minutes, he usually dedicates 2½ to 3 hours per day to mentoring his peers.
On the outside his work was “very different to the teaching role I’ve taken on now.” He told us: “I was a bit doubtful at the start because I’ve never actually taught anyone in my life. I think it’s always something that I feared as a career movement.” Talking about why he became a mentor, he decided to “give it a go—I’ve got nothing to lose so I really stuck into it.” But he found a purpose in his work: “I’ve seen how it helped the learners themselves, how they developed to where they are today… it gives me a real sense of pride.” Callum mentors both literacy and numeracy sessions, but told us he has always loved numbers and maths the most, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed it. I enjoy puzzles.”
Ben is one of Callum’s learners. The pair had actually met before Ben joined the programme, as Callum told us: “I mean, he was on the same wing as me but he wasn’t a learner at the time and we just seemed to speak every single day, between going for the meals, et cetera. And it was just a casual conversation we had… he asked what I teach, and also about the maths programme which had just really started and he was quite intrigued about it.” Callum encouraged Ben to give it a go, and despite his nerves he joined with Callum as his mentor.
Four months later, and Ben is enjoying the scheme: “Callum seemed like a nice person that I could get on with… I needed some of that, someone very secure and not judgmental. He shows me little tricks that I can use on challenging puzzles—I enjoy it, you know, you would not believe how stupefied maths made me before. I’m doing better.”
Sam met Ben when he first arrived at Channings Wood. It was through Ben that he met Callum—Sam saw Callum on the wings wearing a Shannon Trust shirt, and so asked him about the mentorship scheme. With some encouragement from Callum and Ben, Sam’s sessions began the next day.
According to Dan, this referral approach is quite normal: “Most of the learners approach mentors. Since the start of November, there have been more referrals coming directly through mentors.” With the mentors being out on the wings, within the prison population, they are a great point of contact for potential participants who want to learn more about the trust. The peer-to-peer nature of this means they can ask the mentors questions informally, in a no-pressure environment, which eases in potential participants and encourages them to take part to the scheme.
Often, the learners have had bad experiences with maths at school. Ben told us: “I had been told I was stupid all my life”, and that he just “froze when it came to numbers”. Sam left school in year 10, and struggled with the initial assessment tests. One topic he is finding especially difficult at the moment is percentages and fractions. The programme also covers a range of topics ranging from times tables, telling the time, and giving change in the earlier books to finding angles, Bodmas, reflections, translations, and line graphs in the later books. Another struggle for Sam is his neurodiversity, and the stigma associated with it: “I have autism and ADHD and was bullied all my life.” According to Dan, this is common occurrence for learners in the programme, with many learners struggling with attention disorders, dyscalculia, dyslexia, or more generally experiencing “a lot of trauma attached to maths and numbers.”
For adult education in general, there are often problems with reaching out for help—but difficulties with maths are not seen as unusual. This is the reason Callum, Sam and Ben thought the maths sessions had a higher uptake than literacy; Callum said: “I really believe it’s a stigma, because if you can’t read, people might make fun of you or you might feel embarrassed. Whereas if it comes to numbers, there’s no shame. Everybody knows that almost everybody has struggled with numbers.”
Views of other participants
“Before I became a mentor, I started out as a learner. I completed the reading and maths programme at HMP Dartmoor. When I transferred to HMP Channings Wood, I started mentoring. For me, I wanted to mentor because I was mentored. I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s given me confidence in myself, that I can make a difference to others. This job has also opened so many doors for me. Because of this job, Weston College are putting me through level 3 teacher training. I’m also getting a good reference from the governor and Shannon Trust for my release. My sentence goes so quickly now because I’m busy. It’s the best job in the jail.”
“I was nervous starting with the maths, but now I’m losing the fear. I started with the reading and that’s coming on great. I had a fear of numbers from school; even picking up the maths book was a struggle. Even the thought of numbers would tie my stomach in knots. But things are changing in a big way. I actually look forward to the maths now, which I never thought I would. I’m in the hands of a really good teacher—teachers at school never explained things like now. He makes it fun, we both laugh at our mistakes! Thank you.”
Part of the advantage of the peer-led scheme seems to be built on the relationship of trust between mentor and learners. Sam told us that sometimes he and Ben continue working on the topics outside their sessions, and “Callum will come see how we’re doing and chat to us.” He explained how Callum “goes above and beyond”, dedicating time on the weekends for more sessions and constantly encouraging them to continue working on their maths and English. Throughout our conversation, Callum repeatedly encouraged Sam and Ben, highlighting their achievements to us and working on their confidence.
Dan sees that many of the learners on the programme “have trust issues with figures of authority. Prisoner to prisoner it’s easier to develop a trusting relationship, a positive relationship, with a level of empathy and understanding that only the prisoners can have… as a facilitator I can’t have that level of bond.” The peer-to-peer mentoring is essential for this scheme to work: “The trust and rapport that mentors are able to build, being prisoners themselves, helps to break down these trust barriers.”
Outcomes of the programme
Despite these difficulties, all three participants reported that they have made enormous progress with the programme and have described genuinely enjoying doing maths. Ben told us: “Maths has always been a major fight for me,” but the one-to-one nature of the mentoring has changed his attitude completely. “Before you couldn’t pay me to do it… now I’m excited about it and I just wanna learn it. I really, really enjoy it.”
Some mentors have gone on to work towards getting teaching qualifications. Callum told us how much he values the experience as a mentor: “It just fills me with pride the fact that I’ve actually contributed to their achievements in a way where I never thought I could. You know, just some simple understanding of reading, a simple understanding of numbers, knowledge to assist someone else to make themselves better and give them great opportunities. How well they’ve come forward is really amazing.”
After finishing the programme, there are further opportunities for the learners. Dan told us: “We’re about being a gateway to further education, so any learners who are coming up to completing or are engaging well and want to start education can be referred on.” The trust works closely with the education department in the prison, helping participants progress into formal education after the programme. Ben told us he was sitting a maths test next week in the education department for the next stage. Sam told us he is looking forward to sitting a maths test in the future. Both Ben and Sam described how useful the skills they have learned from their one-to-ones will be when they leave the prison, going forward and finding a job.
This scheme targets a demographic who are often excluded from education, and gives them the confidence they need to learn the maths. “We primarily work with learners who wouldn’t engage with standard education again… they’ve been left behind at school, because they didn’t get the one-to-one support they needed,” Dan told us. In a group classroom at school, Sam felt that “there were 30 other people there laughing at you”, but now he has the confidence to work towards his exams in the future. Ben feels like the programme will open up doors for him, and hopes he can become a mentor for the maths programme himself.
Apart from developing skills, Dan highlighted to us that one of the key goals of the programme was about helping with personal development: building trust, making learning fun, giving people a sense of achievement and worth. “We make it clear that the mentors are not expected to be experts in maths. Essentially what we’re trying to achieve is to make learning fun—to go through the books and to make them fun. Get people engaged and enjoying their learning.” According to Callum: “I think that’s what this programme offers… it gives them greater opportunities, whether they’re in prison or whether they’re released into the outside world, this opens a lot more doors for them. Even a little bit of knowledge helps them somewhere down the line in the future and to achieve something like that is worthwhile, it’s done its job. It’s made a difference in someone’s life.”