Arts projects and performances are hugely popular among prisoners, staff and governors, and should be used to motivate wider learning, according to a new report.

Prison Door

The creative and performing arts can motivate prisoners who have had negative experiences in the classroom to re-engage with education, a review of prison education has found.

According to the report, ‘Unlocking potential’, using the arts as part of ‘blended learning’ programme to teach English and maths skills can be both enjoyable and motivating experiences for prisoners. One-off projects or performances with arts companies were often “the first thing” that prisoners, staff and Governors mentioned to report author Dame Sally Coates.

47% of prisoners report having no qualifications and nearly a third of these self-identify as having a learning difficulty and / or a disability. Coates has concluded that finding a personalised and holistic approach to education can help prisoners to successfully re-enter society, find jobs and live fulfilling lives.

Curriculum time

101,600 learners are currently studying under OLASS (Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service) contracts for prison education, though only 100 prisoners participated in a full Level 3 course equivalent to ‘A’ level in 2014/15.

Crucially, the provision of art, drama and music courses is not a core part of current OLASS arrangements, despite evidence of creative subjects boosting skills in other disciplines.

The review centres on a music class at HMP Cardiff, where maths was embedded as part of the teaching of basic musical notation and English skills were strengthened by lyrics writing and analysis.

One of the review’s conclusions is that “there should be no restriction on the use of education funding to support the creative arts”.

Alison Frater, Chair of the National Alliance for Arts in Criminal Justice – which contributed to the review – said in a blog that the organisation would work with ministers to help optimise the impact of the arts of prisoners.

She said the Alliance would provide prison governors “with briefings on best practice when commissioning arts organisations” and advise them on co-production with the health and education sectors “to build engagement with the arts and improve health and learning outcomes”.

Speaking at the review’s launch, Sally Coates said the arts play a critical part in building self-confidence and self-worth. She added: “[The arts are] currently underutilized despite often being the one thing that really works.”