Teenage criminals are rarely the illiterate educational dropouts that stereotypes suggest, new research has revealed.
In fact, many are forced to abandon courses when they go into prison, and the system does little to support their return to their studies when they are released.
Anita Wilson, of Lancaster University, is studying ways in which the criminal justice system interrupts the educational progress of young offenders.
Her interim findings are based on interviews with prisoners aged 18 to 21, many of whom were studying at school or sixth form college before being incarcerated.
She said the Government and the media tended to link educational apathy with a life of crime.
"Common perceptions are that prisoners move from truancy to exclusion to crime and that as a result of this they are functionally illiterate," she said.
"(But) young offenders' experiences of school had ranged between 'shite' and 'great'. Many had got GCSEs and a number had gone on to further or higher education."
When asked whether there was anything positive about being in jail, several mentioned "getting certificates" and "going to education". The prisoners also appreciated being treated as "a student, not a prisoner" by non-uniformed staff.
Many prisoners referred to the way their education had been disrupted by imprisonment. Some talked about arrests taking place at college or school. "These actions were felt by the young people to have a long-term residual effect," Dr Wilson said. "Levels of embarrassment were strongly felt."
Others spoke about how the threat of a sentence "hanging over your head" made them depressed and, in some cases, suicidal.
They struggled to keep up with coursework during their court appearances and trials, although one prisoner did manage to pass exams while his court case was pending. Others reported that their vocational apprenticeships had been disrupted.
Prison education could not always guarantee the continuation of courses or apprenticeships begun on the outside, Dr Wilson said. College-level prisoners found there were no relevant classes or resources for them because the system was set up for educational dropouts. Strict and lengthy protocols had to be negotiated to get specialist books brought into jail.
Many also found that being regularly moved from jail to jail interrupted their courses. One young person spoke about being transferred the day before an important exam: "I was not happy," he said.
Disruptions of this type occurred even after prison. Release dates were rarely co-ordinated to the academic year, so some former prisoners have months to wait before enrolling on a new course.
"The inflexibility of the academic year invokes a despairing exclamation of: 'You mean I have to wait until next September?' from young people keen to continue with their educational progress," Dr Wilson said.
"Leaving jail in February or March means that many could fall by the wayside in the intervening time between release and reconnection to education and study."
She has called for authorities to pay greater attention to the realities of many prisoners' lives. "Current engagement in education - such as college or university - appears to be virtually ignored during the sentencing process," Dr Wilson said.
"Prisons are mandated to focus primarily on prisoner students with basic literacy needs, rather than those who are currently wishing to take nationally accredited exams ...
"The interruptions of the criminal justice system itself are rarely recognised."
IN THE FRAME
- Aged 15-17: 1,883
- Aged 18-20: 6,638
- Enrolled in NVQ programmes: 2,224
- Enrolled in GCSE programmes: 934
- Enrolled in A-level and AS-level programmes: 264
- Total of all ages enrolled in learning programmes: 115,634
- Two most popular qualifications: certificate in adult numeracy and certificate in adult literacy.