The probation service is this week accused of failing to equip offenders with basic skills in literacy and numeracy that are vital to their rehabilitation.
Probation officers have a poor understanding of basic skills and methods of teaching literacy, numeracy and language, a national survey by inspectors says. As a result, the learning opportunities available to the 200,000 adult offenders under supervision by the National Probation Service are "inflexible" and "inappropriate".
These are among 16 criticisms of the probation service and its efforts to help offenders find work and reduce the rates of re-offending, which are listed in a report by the Adult Learning Inspectorate. ALI inspectors visited 15 probation areas in England and two in Wales in preparing their report, Basic Skills for Offenders in the Community.
Basic skills provision involves too narrow a range of teaching methods to hold the attention of people who have often been discouraged from learning by repeated failure, ALI says.
The report is particularly critical of the inflexibility of further education colleges in meeting the training needs of offenders. "The majority of probation areas contract their basic skills training to further education colleges, which run provision with a set structure of courses and timetables," it says.
"Offenders are required to fit in with these established patterns, which often do not meet their needs. Many college-based courses are arranged as a couple of hours a week during the day, term time only.
"If an offender has problems with this arrangement, the opportunity to establish a pattern of regular learning is missed."
Inspectors are also critical of teaching methods. "Over-reliance on handouts and paper-based information is particularly unsuited to offenders who have low levels of literacy and numeracy," the report adds. "Very little learning is adapted so that it is relevant to offenders'
The inspectors say that learning is "often disrupted or sporadic" with many offenders referred for training too late to gain a qualification before the end of their supervision order.
Home Office targets for placing greater emphasis on offenders gaining formal qualifications, rather than finding a job and avoiding reoffending, were also criticised in the report. David Sherlock, ALI's chief inspector, said colleges need to be more imaginative in delivering basic skills training to offenders.
"You have got real problems if you want offenders to go to a college, walk through the door in the middle of a day and sit in a class," he said. "If you want to engage people you have got to take a different attitude. If you have poor basic skills and a criminal record you are going to be lodged down firmly among the minority of people who can't find work."
An example of good practice cited in the report is a scheme in Cambridgeshire where a mobile learning centre brings technology and learning resources to remote areas.
The report expresses hope that the recently-created National Offender Management Service and recent partnership arrangements between the Offender Learning and Skills Unit, the National Probation Service and the Learning and Skills Council will help to address the problems.
In a joint foreword to the report, skills minister Ivan Lewis and Home Office minister Paul Goggins say: "The Government believes that offenders should have access to good quality education and training in the community."