Workbooks designed especially for women prisoners enable learners to become more independent

LTE Novus

We carefully designed workbooks to enable women prisoners to work independently on their underlying maths skills. The workbooks were designed to encourage a conversation about maths learning between learner and tutor. All learners can become more independent but it is easier for the higher level ones. Good workbooks make a difference, but in-person contact is essential.

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Novus (part of The Manchester College) provides prison education to nearly 50 establishments and three out of the five Youth Offender Institutions (YOI’s) around the country.

Initially the project was focused on finding ways to improve the success rates of the new Functional Skills reform qualifications (4748). However, in March 2020 education and the way it was delivered changed overnight in the UK and we faced more challenges than most…

We had to maintain a progressive learning environment and fulfil contractual obligations but without any face-to-face delivery, learner access to technology and whilst working from home. It was a daunting time and we quickly had to adapt to a learning model that would suit the situation.

Prison tutors from across the country were put into teams and, working from home, produced a catalogue of in-cell work packs to support qualifications both new and old. The Women’s Estate (North), HMP Low Newton, HMP Styal, HMP Newhall and HMP Askham Grange collaborated as a working group and developed adaptable, blended learning workbooks to make maths accessible and support learners via in-cell learning.


A large proportion of our learners struggle to achieve a Level 1 maths qualification in the allocated learning hours (55hrs). Many factors contribute to this, including: low literacy levels; a lack of confidence in their abilities; a negative attitude to maths. For some this may be a result of previous schooling experiences or a reluctance to disclose educational difficulties, whilst for others the environment in which they grew up may have had a detrimental effect on their outlook to education. .‘If someone in your surroundings has manipulated you from a young age and you’ve learnt this is normal, you are only able to change it if you act differently’ (Bandura, 1977). The aim of the project was to enable learners to act differently with maths.

In September 2020 we decided to introduce a new set of maths qualifications to run in conjunction with the existing Functional Skills (FS) courses. These were City & Guilds Entry Level 3 ‘Bitesize’ units, which covered 55 core skills areas across all levels.

We chose to focus on six core skill units which were selected because we thought they would be the easiest to access independently. Each unit focused on a narrow set of maths concepts and skills, which provide the scaffolding of knowledge required to progress to either a full FS maths qualification or enrol onto a vocational course with maths as a prerequisite. The Bitesize model with its individual units could also be used for short sentence learners, learners with a skills gap, and for those who would struggle on a lengthier programme (Appendix 4).


  • Learners were assessed through initial assessment and maths diagnostics to identify common ‘gaps’ in mathematical skills/knowledge and understanding.
    We chose the Bitesize Units that would address these gaps:
    o Addition and subtraction
    o Multiplication
    o Division
    o Decimal numbers (including place value)
    o Money
    o Fractions
  • The team came from four female prisons across the North-West and comprised of seven tutors, four were maths specialists and three who had experience in either quality assurance or digital support. We formed sub-groups and, working remotely but collaboratively, produced materials suitable for supporting Bitesize learners.
  • We attended virtual workshops which included: blended learning approaches, supporting SEND and writing effective assessments.
  • The team worked remotely and collaboratively on workbooks, not only for Bitesize, but for FS across all levels and produced over 50 in-cell booklets. Consideration had to be given to the following areas:
    o No personal contact with tutors
    o Limited ‘quiet’ space for learners to complete work
    o Security restrictions on maths equipment such as calculators
    o Prisoner’s mental/physical health and educational needs (Appendix 2)
  • Once quality checked, the materials (see figure 1) were trialled with a small number of learners who had been pre-selected according to skill set, motivation and a desire to improve their maths skills whilst in custody.

Learners were encouraged to provide feedback (Appendix 5) throughout the workbooks and we used this to inform our amendments.

  • We had to be flexible as we encountered difficulties such as: a slow turnaround of work due to quarantine; an inability to authenticate learners’ work as their own and an outbreak of Covid 19.
  • In-cell phones were installed in November 2020 which allowed for verbal support and feedback between tutor and learner. This allowed for a more personal approach to teaching and also gave us an opportunity to ‘tailor’ supplementary work if it was required.
  • A digital blended learning tracker incorporating an individual learning plan (ILP) was introduced to allow us to centrally monitor quality of work, turnaround times and feedback of learners and tutors.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

Figure 1

Figure 1

To help us meet the diverse needs of all the learners in a remote setting, we were encouraged to attend a series of virtual workshops and webinars promoting blended learning, supporting SEND and effective assessments. Four of the team also completed a Level 2 qualification in Hidden Difficulties which enabled us to use an appropriate sequence of teaching and a flexible range of strategies to engage the high percentage of learners who had disclosed an additional support need (Appendix 2).

The workbooks were developed using a national template and the framework of content for each unit used both existing strategies and creative approaches to challenge and stimulate the learner throughout the unit (Figure 1). Consideration was given to the inclusion of diversity, equality and British values through careful planning.

We encouraged learners to be autonomous by:

  • setting themselves personal and developmental goals
  • reflecting on their progress
  • submitting learner feedback
  • completing end of course reviews
Figure 2

Figure 2

Learner-focused reflection helped us to identify areas for development and review the pace, approach and teaching method in each unit. With this information we were able to adapt and refine the work as we went along so as to produce a set of clear and differentiated workbooks with suitable pedagogical strategies which supported the needs of the learner (Figure 2).

We were unable to conduct any FS exams during lockdown but we were able to gather portfolio-based assessment material which supported the Bitesize qualifications once we resumed classroom-based activities. Authentication of work was essential to ensure we were adhering to City & Guilds guidance; however this proved difficult in some of the establishments due to the housing arrangements of the learners. A decision was made to defer assessment until authentication of work could be guaranteed.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Prior to the pandemic, there had been little opportunity for inter-site collaboration due to staffing requirements and location. With the transition to home working and an introduction to digital networking via Teams and Zoom calls, we suddenly had the opportunity to easily exchange best practices, skills and discuss problems we were facing. Close, collaborative and fruitful working relationships developed.

During the initial lockdown March 2020 to July 2020, we were reliant on a combination of FS and topic-based workbooks being distributed by prison officers and marking being done at home via secure DPD delivery. Offenders were frustrated at being ‘locked up’ for long periods of time and ‘requested’ workbooks but there was no way of assessing how suitable the workbook was for the learner. We found ourselves dealing with a large proportion of returns which were at the wrong level for the individual. The diversity of prior attainment in the prison population meant it was impossible to cater for all.

Learners who had enrolled prior to lockdown were encouraged to continue working towards their qualification on a remote basis. However this was met with a mixed response. Some had been affected by Covid-19 themselves; some had had friends or family affected, whilst others had seen their mental health deteriorate with the changes in regime.

We returned to site on a limited basis in July 2020, with guidance from both Ministry of Justice and Novus and with a directive that we should only be on site for marking and administration. This allowed us to work collectively, whilst focusing on our own subject areas and with access to personal information on each learner.

Individual assessments (IA’s) were reintroduced in the form of paper based BKSB which allowed us to allocate learners to a suitable course and provide appropriate workbooks.

Blended learning trackers were created which enabled us to track and monitor learners’ progression and log any feedback received or sent out. This feedback was used to inform us of any support requirements and also an aid in ‘tailoring’ the work the learners might be sent in addition to the workbooks.

Approximately one month after the introduction of the Bitesize qualifications, in-cell telephones were installed, which allowed direct contact between learner and tutor. This was hugely beneficial to both learner and tutors as it allowed verbal feedback to be given and the opportunity for learners to voice any concerns they be having with their work.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Bitesize is a new qualification with a new delivery model and the data provided is the initial data. With not being able to authenticate learners’ work and the limited learning support available to our learners during the pandemic, final assessments were completed when learners returned to face to face classroom delivery.

Some learners who had never worked independently began to do so with the new workbooks,

“thank you, I’ve just got work on Friday night 24th Oct 2020, I would Like a pen and Scrap Paper to Practise first, I am happy with my achievements up to now, I’ll get this work done this week.”

The higher level students often thrived on being able to work at their own pace, supported by phone or written feedback.

It may be that some lower prior achievement learners find working independently difficult because they are working at the wrong level. For example, one Entry Level 3 learner worked very quietly in lessons. She skimmed through workbooks completing as little as 20% even though she had help with reading and further explanations in class. She did not return homework. During the learner’s weekly review we both agreed to enrol her on Entry Level 2 and that workbooks would be sent as homework to read prior to lesson enabling the learner to read and process information and concepts of maths topics prior to the next lesson. She worked independently on the Entry Level 2 workbooks in her cell and subsequently worked more independently in class. She passed her Entry Level 2 with 83% and progressed to the Entry Level 3 with much more confidence.

About twenty seven learners started the Bitesize qualification and thirteen learners achieved (48%). Two learners continued on the programme and were on target to achieve, increasing the success rate to 56%. 12/27 (44%) learners were released from prison before evidence could be collated due to the 72hr quarantine.

Learning from this project

Well designed and attractive workbooks make a difference.

Higher level, more able learners thrive when they can work independently: for some of the more confident learners, the remote in-cell model gave them the opportunity to work independently and at their own speed. They engaged with the weekly telephone support and used the learner feedback within the booklets to voice any concerns or support needs they may have had.

Collaboration between sites benefits everyone: all establishments worked positively, supporting each other, sharing ideas and working with the strengths of each individual producing standardised resources for both new and old qualification for a bended learning model of delivery.

Assessing learners’ maths level correctly at the start of a programme is very important.

The new standardised workbooks and trackers support continuity of learning: they enable learners to continue with learning when transferred to a different prison. Learners can pick up where they left off and not have to start over again. Tutors can liaise with each other and share learners’ progress trackers/work.

In-cell telephones make a big difference: tutors can contact learners and talk through any misconceptions. Tutor and learner can discuss concerns and provide further support.

Prisoners need quiet spaces to study: some of the prison wings can be very loud, and learners struggle to concentrate or even complete work sent. Learners living in a house could be sharing rooms with up to four other people, and communal space is often noisy and distracting.

Learners give useful feedback when given the opportunity: great feedback received from learners which allowed tutors to identity additional support requirements, make amendments to teaching, encourage learner’s engagement etc.

Low level learners face significant barriers to independent working: 65% of learners in English and 77% in Maths were Entry Level 3 or below which was identified at induction though initial assessment results. 66% of these learners disclosed at induction that they have mental health issues and/or learning disability with associated learning difficulties (Appendix 2). This means that blended learning may not be suitable for everyone due to their lack of confidence and basic literacy and numerical skills. As suggested by Stankov, Morony & Ping (2011)

‘Confidence is a much better predictor of learners’ achievements than any other non-cognitive measure’.

Learning related to the pandemic:

Limitations to remote delivery (staff absences, reliance on Prison Officers): staff not on site, incorrect work handed to learner, no marking or feedback to learners, unsure if learners are receiving work.

Difficulties substantiating authenticity of work: Unsure if the learners have received support from others or if someone had completed work for them. Not all establishments have only single or double cells. This is another potential problem with blended learning.

Turn-around of work due to quarantine: 72 hrs quarantine for all work impacted on the time taken for work to be sent, returned to be marked. Once feedback had been sent alongside with guidance and the next steps the process could take up to 3 weeks.


Bandura, A. (1977) Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs. N.J: Prentice Hall,

Stankov, l., Morony, S., and Ping, l. (2011). Strong Links between Self-Confidence and Math Performance. Available at: Accessed 12 May 2021