Supporting ESOL in prisons

12 September 2019

For many people in the criminal justice system who do not have English as their first language, the experience of prison can be doubly debilitating.

The Prison within a Prison report by The Bell Foundation concludes that the lack of national data makes it difficult to plan provision for people with ESOL needs. And, when visiting prisons as part of the project, we saw prison staff use a range of informal methods to identify which prisoners might be appropriate to attend ESOL classes, but it meant that some people were not appropriately identified and fell through the gaps.

In recognition of these challenges, the project Improving Language, Improving Lives was established. We created a screening tool for use on the wing or during the induction process. Existing initial assessments in prisons are designed to assess reading and writing skills, whilst the screening tool covers speaking and listening too. These are vitally important skills for progressing effectively through a prison sentence and it is important to be able to pitch support at the right level. The tool also offers the opportunity to gather better quality, more consistent data about the nature of the language needs within our prison population.

During the project, I was impressed by the skills, knowledge, dedication and creativity of the ESOL tutors we met. However, they work in challenging environments. The training days and events for ESOL tutors we put on were popular, well attended and very well received by delegates. One of the most common thoughts expressed by attending tutors was how great it was to be at an event designed for them, sharing ideas and practice with others doing a similar role.

Tutors often have a challenging role with little support, development opportunities or access to resources. The ESOL tutor resource pack we developed meets this need and deserves to be distributed as widely as possible. It was appropriate for the resources to be recognised by the British Council at their annual ELTons awards celebrating innovation.

The resource pack is the first resource of its kind made freely available to the public. It was designed with prison environments in mind, enabling learners in prison to acquire knowledge which is both useful and relevant to their lives whilst also learning English. The discussions they have in class, covering health, finance and civic issues, are often immediately relevant to their day-to-day situations as well as supporting life after release. This is particularly important when community ESOL support delivered through probation services has been reduced. During the project, ESOL support in the community was withdrawn as part of the new Community Rehabilitation Company contracts that were introduced as part of the part-privatisation of probation.

Many challenges remain in this area of work. The hidden nature of the problem means that important work often does not attract the resource it needs. This project helps to highlight key challenges and has also developed tools to help address them.

You can find out more about the Improving Language, Improving Lives project, the screening tool and the ESOL resources here. Please download the resources for ESOL tutors here. To train prison officers in the use of the ESOL screening tool and to help them identify ESOL needs, do get in touch to get a copy of the ‘Train the Trainer’ materials and the screening tool.


Ross Little, senior lecturer, criminology, De Montfort University, Leicester

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