School-aged offenders in prison get a sub-standard education, says a study by the Howard League for Penal Reform, to be published next month.
Poorly-qualified teachers, inadequate assessment of offenders' capabilities, classes disrupted by prison routines, and a lack of continuity with education before or after a sentence are among the catalogue of inadequacies uncovered.
The study involved 84 out of 268 15-year-old boys held in juvenile prison units in England. Researcher Lorraine Atkinson said: "Little attention is being paid to the educational needs of children in prison. This means they are less likely to achieve their full potential and more likely to re-offend - particularly since these boys will have difficulties finding jobs because of their lack of qualifications."
More than 300 boys and girls under the school-leaving age are currently in juvenile prison units. In all, 3,000 15 to 18-year-olds are held in these units which, because they are classed as prisons, are under no statutory obligation to educate inmates.
The study says the situation is better in "secure units" run by the Department of Health where about 120 10 to 17-year-olds are held. In these, education plays a central role and children are taught by qualified staff.
In Scotland, no one under 17 is held in a young offenders' institution, the equivalent of juvenile prison units. There, all younger teenagers in custody are in secure units.
"Prisons receive less funding than secure units," Ms Atkinson told a conference on prison education at the University of Abertay in Dundee last week.
"It is not surprising then that prisons are not able to offer the same standard of education - or that boys in prison do not have the same educational opportunities as those in secure units or in the community."
Most of the boys in the study - to be published on August 1 - were in prison for robbery or car crime. Many had a disrupted and negative experience of school education. But a third had actually been attending school or college full-time and were studying for external exams.
"Heads of education said they did try to ensure these boys continued with their examination coursework but in reality this was difficult and in many cases impossible - mainly because of the limited curriculum on offer or because the boys had to move between units," Ms Atkinson said.
Prison teachers lacked the experience or qualifications to teach boys of school age, she added. They were also isolated from fellow professionals working in secondary schools. "They have few professional links with them and did not attend in-service training," she said.