Learning and skills acquisition can provide offenders with the tools to improve their lives. These may offer a route out of offending and towards a more productive, positive future. There is evidence of good work going on across Scotland to develop and deliver effective offender learning but it is far from universal.
Too often, opportunities to participate are limited. Services are often poorly integrated and the help they offer is fragmented. The main emphasis is on punishing people for their offending behaviour. Enabling them to move on in their lives through effective support rarely has the same priority. For people serving community sentences, some progress has been made in maximising the learning gained through Community Service and Supervised Attendance Orders for example, but good practice is patchy. It is particularly challenging in overcrowded prisons to provide suitable learning opportunities when the main focus is on custody and maintaining order. This report identifies the challenges that need to be faced and where improvements can be made.
Responsibility for offender learning covers many agencies in a number of sectors including education, social work, criminal justice, training and employment. Consequently, offender learning is 'everyone's problem' but ultimately no-one's main responsibility. This must change if we are to make progress: in future we should be clear about who is ultimately responsible for improving offenders' learning outcomes. Until now, there has been no clear commitment to taking a systemic approach to offender learning. This has led to a lack of clarity about governance, co-ordination and communication around delivery.
Fragmentation is one of the key barriers to providing consistent support in the face of the many transitions involved. These include moving from the youth to the adult justice system; leaving mainstream education; entering or leaving custody; re-integrating into the community. Within Scotland's most deprived areas there is an evident pattern of recycling between communities and prison, particularly for young men. Learning pathways started in one setting can be disrupted when individuals move to another. Greater co-ordination is vital if we are to prevent people falling through the gaps.
It is clear that improvements can be made. Two thirds of individuals currently sentenced to prison go on to re-offend within two years of release. This figure rises to three quarters of those given short sentences of under six months. By comparison, re-offending rates amongst those serving community sentences are considerably lower with two out of five (39%) re-offending within two years. The reasons why people stop offending are complex and vary according to individual circumstances, but sustainable employment and skills development are important factors once accommodation, benefits and support for addictions are in place. Progress is not always possible on release from custody or ending a community sentence, but should be a clear long-term goal for many more than have succeeded in the past. Just as important in the short term is to support these individuals to become better citizens and parents and to make positive choices in their lives.
The three workstreams have identified a number of key themes that require attention. The more detailed recommendations affecting each of the three areas are contained in the separate reports. One of the important conclusions of this work is that progress will only be made when currently fragmented approaches are managed as a single system. Progress in the short-term doesn't require new structures or more money. Positive changes can be made by making more efficient and effective use of what already exists, although a shift of resources towards productive learning and skills development will ultimately be required.
Among the common themes running through our analysis are:
Without a commitment to change and support for the system to deliver it, outcomes will remain poor. The Scottish Government has shown its commitment to change by commissioning this report. It must continue to demonstrate clear leadership and work with all other partners to develop a more systemic approach to offender learning. Leadership is also needed in key organisations such as local authorities and the Scottish Prison Service to deliver better outcomes.
Too often learning is producer or programme driven, rather than personalised to the needs of individuals. People have to fit the system rather than the system responding to their abilities, interests and needs. This makes it less attractive to individuals and wastes vital resources. Greater flexibility is required in how existing opportunities are accessed and delivered.
- Evidence of effectiveness
There is a worrying lack of research evidence about the impact of learning for offenders. This includes poor baseline information for the post-compulsory education outcomes of young people with offending backgrounds. However, the available data suggest that the likelihood of moving into a positive destination is less than half the national rate (41% compared with 87%). Such information gaps need to be filled if future policy and practice is to be based on more robust evidence. As well as improving data collection for younger people, there is a strong case for commissioning tracking studies comparing offenders who have made progress through work and learning with those who have not. Forthcoming improvements in the offender records database should also be used for this purpose.
Not all offenders will be ready to respond positively to offers of learning. It is therefore important to adapt support according to prior attainment, current skills and levels of need (including adult literacy and numeracy support). While all should be offered learning opportunities, resources should be targeted among particular groups where early action can reduce the risk of offending or re-offending. These include young people leaving care and children of offenders who are known to be at greater risk of offending. For example, we know that two thirds (65%) of boys with a convicted parent go on to offend. Such young people should be identified within schools and offered tailored support. Priority should also be given to offenders serving their first time in custody in an attempt to break the cycle of offending. In terms of employability, greater support should be concentrated on offenders who are more likely to benefit from vocational training programmes.
Learning for offenders needs to be about more than numeracy and literacy. It needs to be holistic, person-centred and address the range of skills for learning, life and work. This includes core life skills such as how to deal with anger, rejection, disappointment and practical skills such as painting and decorating, gardening and hairdressing. For some it may include managing money and basic cookery.
It is important that all offenders have a record of their learning achievement that can follow them throughout the system and be built upon at various stages. This could use an existing mainstream model such as My Learning Space, developed by Skills Development Scotland. This record can document an individual's learning journey. Disincentives to begin or continue learning need to be addressed, particularly for those in custody.
We need to move away from measuring inputs (hours of learning hours completed) to measuring the outcomes achieved from these and other interventions. This will allow us to invest in the most effective programmes that deliver the best results. This includes developing better indicators of progress and widening the definition of positive outcomes to look beyond re-offending or employment rates.
A successful system would be one where:
- learning and skills acquisition for offenders is of central importance in helping offenders to make positive changes in their lives;
- needs are identified early and a development plan agreed that can be implemented across all points in the individual's learning journey;
- efficient use is made of available resources by targeting support at those most able to benefit;
- effectiveness is monitored, based on solid evidence of outcomes;
- systems can respond flexibly to individual need and offer a range of learning supports, again tailored to individuals;
- close joint working exists across all agencies with a greater knowledge and understanding of respective roles and responsibilities.
Making this happen will require a renewed focus on the importance of offender learning. It also requires a commitment by all partners to deliver a more effective system based on a person-centred learning journey for all offenders and those at risk of offending.
Although our work has identified a range of practical solutions, a number of challenges remain unresolved. Principal amongst these is the need for clear leadership. This must involve a systemic approach where specific agency roles and responsibilities are clearly mapped, where the goals of offender learning are defined, the impacts demonstrated and accountability for progress located.
Our work can be seen as an important step in a process. Through the Offender Management Programme ( OMP) there is an opportunity to take this further and ensure that improved learning and skills outcomes contribute to safer lives, reduced offending and greater community safety across Scotland.
Eddy Adams, Chair, Young Offenders workstream
James McCormick, Chair, In Custody workstream
Esther Roberton, Chair, In Community workstream