PRISON education can be a boost for young people who experienced disruption and alienation at school, delegates were told at a workshop on young offenders. The event was part of an international conference hosted by the University of Abertay in Dundee last week.
Scotland's chief inspector of prisons, meanwhile, wants to see education become an "intrinsic" right.
A study by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders looked at 90 males detained in three young offenders institutions in England. It found that the majority (66 per cent) saw that prison education had "made a difference to them" and, for "a significant fifth", it also meant a change in attitude. "It had given them a chance to think and to gain confidence," Jackie Worrall,the association's prison development manager, said.
When recalling experiences of school, 84 per cent gave negative reports. Teachers emerged as being of "immense significance" in contributing to these feelings. One in five said they did not like being told what to do. "They liked to find things out for themselves," Ms Worrall said.
Prison classes were small and "there was more discussion and informality and more attention from the teacher". Teachers in prison were described as being "more tolerant and friendly". Prisoners commented: "They talk to you better than the teachers in school."
One of the most significant findings was that virtually all those in the study will gain qualifications; only 32 per cent had achieved any in school. Increased maturity may also have affected attitudes.
But Ms Worrall criticised prison education for targeting basic skills "to the detriment of a broader based and more challenging curriculum for those who are already beyond the basic skills stage".
Weaknesses resulted from physical restrictions and a lack of resources. Classes could be regularly disrupted by inmates. Attendance was not always guaranteed because of a lack of officers to escort prisoners, teacher redundancies, absenteeism and prisoners' detention in segregation units.
A lack of continuity in provision is a problem in Scottish prisons according to John Oates, a retired head who is now an inspector of prison education. "It can be a fragmented experience as prisoners may have sentences of variable lengths and can be moved from establishment to establishment," Mr Oates said.
In Scotland, prisoners can opt for up to 12 hours a week of education, which is provided by further education college contractors. But places are restricted. Clive Fairweather, chief inspector of prisons, said: "Demand outstrips supply." He believes education is vital in reducing reoffending rates and it should be "an intrinsic part of a prison regime".
Mr Fairweather added: "It needs to start in the prison van on the way from the court to the prison - and be a part of what every prison officer is trying to do. And by the time the individual walks out the gate at the end of their sentence, they should have in their hand some contacts to get them into further education."