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Many of the long standing problems in providing offenders with effective and useful learning and skills training have yet to be overcome following the establishment of the Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS). Offenders who find employment upon their release are less likely to reoffend, which is why improving their training and skills could contribute to a reduction in crime levels.

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The level of training provision at each prison is based on historical funding allocations which do not necessarily match current learning and skills needs. Contracts for providing courses do not reward outcomes and achievements; and there is insufficient data on the impact different sorts of training has on employment and re-offending rates, information which could be used to focus limited resources more effectively.

Offenders have severe learning and skills needs: half of offenders in custody have no qualifications and almost 40 per cent have a reading age beneath that expected of a competent 11 year old. Addressing this is challenging as offenders are likely to have negative experiences of education in the past – almost half of offenders were excluded from school.

These issues impact on getting people to volunteer for courses from which they would benefit and, in addition, not all offenders are able to access the learning and skills they need. There are also problems in getting offenders to complete a course once started. One of the main reasons for this is the disruption caused when they transfer between prisons. Training records are often not transferred with them and differences in the courses being run reduce the potential for continuity in learning.

The NAO estimates uncompleted courses could be costing the taxpayer £30 million a year. Offenders who do not complete a course they begin may get some benefit but will not achieve a qualification that could demonstrate to a potential employer the skills acquired.

The primary role of OLASS is to equip offenders with the skills they need for employment after their release. OLASS provision also aims to reduce re-offending by improving individuals’ basic and life skills, increasing their ability to function in society. The Prison Service also relies on educational pursuits to give prisoners purposeful activity as part of a secure and orderly prison regime. These multiple objectives create tensions in targeting where OLASS resources are spent.

"The Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service has made less progress than it might have done in helping offenders to get back into work after they are released, one of the most important factors in reducing reoffending. Some of the fundamentals, which departments have known about for years, are still not in place – matters like identifying which courses most help offenders to get a job, identifying which offenders need which skills, and helping more of them to finish a course they start. The Departments’ action plan, to be issued shortly, must make it crystal clear how these problems will be addressed effectively."

Tim Burr, head of the National Audit Office


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