A string of Home Office-funded pilot projects in probation offices around the country are trialing basic skills work with offenders which could lead to a new core curriculum for the service.
It is the first national attempt at systematic literacy and numeracy training for offenders and ex-offenders and follows the introduction of a core curriculum in prisons 18 months ago.
The curriculum, based in part on pilots in Lincolnshire, Essex and Shropshire probation services, is being drawn up jointly by the Home Office, Prison Service, Basic Skills Agency and National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders.
A growing body of research points to a link between repeat offending and poor literacy and numeracy. One offender with a history of violence said: "Before, I was always on the edge, always ready to get into a fight. I never knew what it was about. Since I came clean about my problems with reading, my aggression has got much less."
A survey of 500 offenders aged under 25 in Shropshire found one in three had poor reading skills. Seven in 10 were so bad at form-filling that employers said they would throw their job applications straight in the bin.Almost all had skipped school at some time and half had offended while truanting.
The Basic Skills Agency estimates half of prisoners have trouble with reading, writing and maths - the biggest barrier they face to finding work which will keep them on the straight and narrow. But while prison education services have a - literally - captive audience, traditional basic skills courses in the outside world find it hard to entice young offenders in.
Jim Pateman, the agency's head of strategy, said: "Our experience is that young people on probation are reluctant to attend existing basic skills provision. The stigma may be too great or the atmosphere of the adult centre is not attractive."
But these young people are already attending probation service offices where they address their offending, take anger management courses, or get help in looking for work.
Probation services like Lincolnshire are linking with training providers to build basic skills into the individually-tailored programmes.
Probation officer Bryan Glover has been seconded to Lincs Training and Enterprise Council to manage its offender employment project. Officers now assess all new clients for basic skills and offer training to those who need it. Last year that was 150 people out of the 300 put on probation.
Forty per cent gained a qualification - usually Wordpower or Numberpower, awards developed by the Basic Skills Agency and City amp; Guilds. A similar number found work or went to college.
The courses are heavily practical, geared to offenders' own lives: for example, dealing with the benefits system, managing debts, looking for work - and dealing with the courts. Increasingly, they are building in a vocational element.
"We're focusing much more on a combination of basic skills and employment skills," Mr Glover said. "Delivering basic skills in an academic way is less use. It raises their self-esteem but an employer isn't going to take someone on because they've got Wordpower. So we're trying to give them something more marketable, such as food hygiene or health and safety."