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Prison education: a review of reading education in prisons


This research was conducted as part of Ofsted and HMI Prisons’ commitment to carry out a year-long review of prison education. Six prisons were visited and the findings are based on interviews with senior prison leaders, education leaders, teachers, librarians, prison officers and prisoners. Researchers also reviewed curriculum plans and assessment data and visited classrooms, education departments and prison libraries.

The report was lauched at a panel event on 22 March with Chief Inspectors Charlie Taylor (HMI Prisons), Amanda Spielman (Ofsted) and Dame Sally Coates (Chair). It was recorded for an Ofsted podcast.

Listen to the podcast

The report sets out how low reading levels limit prisoners’ ability to navigate life in prison and after it. Prisoners may struggle to access written information such as family and legal correspondence, leaving them vulnerable and at risk of becoming isolated. They may also be prevented from fully participating in purposeful activity. If they leave prison without the necessary employment skills, they may be less likely to get into work and are therefore more likely to reoffend.

Read the report

Key findings

  • Reading education is not given sufficient priority in the prison regime and reading is not a distinct part of the core education offer. There was sometimes a focus on achieving contractual qualification targets, rather than reading needs.
  • In all the prisons we visited, systems to assess prisoners’ reading ability, identify their reading needs, implement solutions and monitor progress were largely absent.
  • Education provision was often not organised in a way which supported prisoners to improve their reading, with many prisoners having to choose between education and work.
  • The curriculum was not well designed to improve reading, with teaching staff often not knowing how to teach adults to read and resources being unsuitable for adults.
  • Early reading provision in prisons relies heavily on delivery by voluntary organisations.
  • Prisoners with the greatest need to improve their reading generally receive the least support.
  • Libraries are not being used to give prisoners opportunities to practice reading.



The education, skills and work offer should include:

  • Initial and ongoing assessments that pinpoint the specific knowledge and skills in reading that prisoners are missing or need to improve.
  • A distinct part of the curriculum offer dedicated to teaching reading.
  • Specialist training and development on teaching adults to read.

For prison governors

Governors should lead a whole-prison approach to reading that facilitates reading for pleasure, purpose and rehabilitation. This would include:

  • Having an ambitious strategy to improve prisoners’ reading skills.
  • Making sure the library promotes reading for pleasure and purpose effectively and provides appropriate texts for adults who are learning to read.
  • Using appropriate interventions that support reading as well as systems to assess, monitor and share information on prisoners’ reading ability and the progress they make.

It is a serious indictment of the prison system that so many prisoners are no better at reading when they leave prison than when they arrived. The prison service, governors and education providers should take urgent action to address the many concerns we have raised in this report.

Charlie Taylor, Chief Inspector of Prisons

Read the report

Action plan

HM Prison and Probation Service Action Plan – June 2022 (226 kB)

HM Prison and Probation Service Action Plan – one year and final review, June 2023 (238 kB)