Do they want to learn what we are teaching? Learner feedback in prison education

Novus – HMP Liverpool

While this project originally intended to link reflections on learning to improving target setting in English and maths, it also used surprising and unexpected responses from learners and tutors to develop a blended approach to classroom teaching.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


The education department at HMP Liverpool provides a range of education including Functional Skills English and maths to men in a category B and C prison. As a local remand prison, HMP Liverpool has a regularly changing cohort of prisoners. This level of change and flux is reflected in the learners we teach.

Project 24 aimed to improve target setting by encouraging learners to reflect on their learning and feel confident in independently identifying strengths and weaknesses. It was hoped that the act of helping learners with their ability to reflect could be linked to discussions about targets and that learners would be able to choose goals relevant to their course that would also be inspiring and meaningful to them.

Stakeholders involved in Project 24 include learners, tutors and education managers across Novus as well as in HMP Liverpool. Prison staff involved with activities management and Ofsted may also benefit from its findings.


In September 2019, HMP Liverpool’s education department had an Ofsted inspection which identified that “target setting was weak in most lessons…Tutors …did not set clear or challenging targets to inspire prisoners to progress and achieve their full potential.” (Justice Inspectorates, 2020)

It was also noticed by tutors that in many English and maths lessons, learners rarely reflected independently on their learning and were often reluctant to admit when they did not know something. Learners did, however, respond positively on the occasions when they were given the opportunity to reflect on their learning.

Project 24 intended to link opportunities for learners to reflect on and take ownership of their learning with setting individual targets that were meaningful and motivational.

Plans were made to introduce a range of reflective activities to English and maths lessons to allow learners to openly identify the learning they could remember as well as areas that needed more practice. It was hoped that learners would be able to set their own targets based on the topics they had decided they needed to improve on. This would lead to targets that would be more likely to inspire and motivate learners and spark a sense of interest and ownership.


The activities that took place during the project had to be significantly adapted due to restrictions imposed on education at HMP Liverpool due to the COVID-19-19 pandemic. The project’s original proposal was based on classroom learning where tutors would have discussions with learners and easily trial a variety of reflective practices and build on these to establish more inspirational targets.

Image of the use of exit slips

Use of exit slips

Throughout the project, learners were restricted to in-cell education. This meant they were working independently through workbooks and paper-based tasks. While tutors could telephone learners, in-person communication was difficult and, when it happened at all, was conducted through a small window in a locked door.

One reflective practice that was trialled was the use of exit slips. Learners were asked to respond to quick questions about what they had just studied, identifying strengths and weaknesses. The exit slips used a range of questions, complexity of vocabulary and levels of specificity. [Appendix 2] Due to COVID-19 outbreaks over the year, there was limited access to wings to deliver and collect the slips. However, it was still possible to gain some useful information from the responses that were received.

When it became clear that the scope of the project would need to change, telephone interviews were implemented to record learners’ reflections. Questions were chosen to find out how much leaners could remember about their most recent work and how they felt about it as well as what they wanted to work on next. [Appendix 3] The responses to these interviews were analysed for trends and provided some interesting data about learners’ attitudes to English and maths education. [Appendix 4]

The attitudes of tutors towards target setting were also reviewed through a survey. [Appendix 5] This looked at how tutors felt about targets and why they thought Ofsted has asked for target setting to be improved.

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

English Entry Level 1 Learner

English Entry Level 1 Learner

One of the first things that became obvious during the project was the importance of building relationships. The lack of face-to-face contact with learners directly impacted communication which made it harder for learners to know exactly what was expected of them as well as the benefits of engaging with the research.

The main learning from the exit slips was that detailed and relevant reflections were provided when prompted by more specific and detailed questions. Fewer responses were received to simple questions such as ‘What was easy?’ It is possible that this is because they were aimed at lower-level learners who have had more difficulty understanding the relevance of the activity. When responding to a more direct question such as ‘What do you know now that you didn’t know before?’, learners referred directly to the topic of the work they had just done. This suggests that tutors should be careful in their choice of language and deploy strong coaching skills when questioning learners to get the most useful responses from their learners.

The results of the staff survey around target setting were interesting. Whilst the staff responses were perfectly valid in regard to target setting, they showed a clear difference to Ofsted’s feedback. The tutors’ responses seemed to concentrate on results:

“to ensure learners make progress”

“…to improve teaching and results for our learners…”

“Targets are often not SMART” [Appendix 5]

whereas the Ofsted feedback could be said to focus more on a love of learning. These responses were considered as a group and ideas were gathered to improve the relevance and meaningfulness of targets by tying Functional Skills objectives to learners’ real-life aims. [Appendix 9]

The tutors’ group discussions allowed for development in professional practice, especially the evaluation of practice and to build positive and collaborative relationships. Some of the information from the project exposed areas for improvement which certainly challenged established models of practice and beliefs about target setting.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Responses to the interviews showed that 64% of learners were unable to identify a new target that was relevant to their course. Learners would typically focus on the next course they wanted to do (such as plastering) or say they didn’t know and would refer to their tutor. This suggests that learners see the act of learning as something being ‘done to them’ rather than something they can be actively involved in and make decisions about. This raised questions about how, as an organisation, we could motivate learners to take ownership of their learning. These questions were taken back to learners through a survey on the prison communication system so that ways to better involve and motivate them in English and maths could be established. [Appendices 10 and 11]

This survey provided a range of responses with most learners stating their current motivation comes from a desire to better and improve themselves. This suggests that there is a significant amount of intrinsic motivation in the learner population to be tapped into. The men at HMP Liverpool want to learn. Do they want to learn what we are teaching them?

Tutor focus groups discussed the problems caused by learners obliged to pass Level 1 in English or maths before studying vocational courses or gaining prison employment which prevents lower-level learners accessing activities of their choice and limits equal opportunities. A blended learning model might encourage learners to study English or maths while doing vocational qualifications or paid prison work. This would lead to a more diverse range of learners studying English and maths.

When men were asked how their motivation and involvement could be increased, the most common response was more communication and discussion with their tutor. The new classroom model will allow opportunity for a collaborative approach to learning which builds on the motivation that is already present.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Evidence of the positive effects of motivated learners who already take ownership of their education can be seen through case studies followed throughout the project. These show learners who were able to communicate with their tutors despite being unable to meet in person. They did this through notes on the work that they did in their cells. [Appendices 12, 13 and 14]

These learners were able to identify when they felt confident about what they had just learnt and this enabled them to build on their learning.

Learner feedback

Learner feedback (Appendix 13)

As they have achieved success, they can achieve further success and are therefore motivated to continue. This contrasts sharply with the 68% of learners participating in the telephone surveys who were unable to identify any new learning from their last workbooks but is positive evidence to suggest that men can make use of reflecting on learning when encouraged.

The case study learners felt safe to admit when they did not understand something, possibly because they were not surrounded by peers and knew that only their tutor would be seeing their comments. Throughout the in-cell learning process necessitated by COVID-19, much has been made of how much better teaching and learning will be when classroom practice resumes. However, the case studies have shown that there is something to be said for the safety and freedoms allowed by in-cell learning and this has been echoed by comments from other learners in the telephone conversations:

“…he had progressed much better working in cell rather than a classroom…he previously used to copy answers as he did not want to admit to not understanding things in front of peers…” [Appendix 15].

Surprisingly, the survey of all learners also revealed that over two thirds who expressed a preference wanted to continue in-cell learning even when it will no longer be necessitated due to external circumstances or combine it with classroom sessions. [Appendices 10 and 11]

These case studies also showed learners who were curious about what they were studying, asking questions and engaging with the materials.

“[Is] it a cilent [sic] d if not why is it spelled like that[?]” [Appendix 12]

This curiosity would be an ideal platform to build meaningful and relevant targets following discussions with tutors.

Learning from this project

While this project has undergone necessary changes in focus, it has highlighted the importance of the motivation and involvement of learners in their study of English and maths.

Most men at HMP Liverpool have intrinsic learning motivation but this has not always translated into being engaged in their current course. Consideration should be made to combining men’s needs and interests with their English and maths learning whether that is using these to create relevant and real targets or increasing engagement through teaching the subjects alongside vocational courses or paid prison jobs.

Learners’ lack of ability to identify targets specific to their course shows that tutors need to offer support and clarity about what they can achieve. Learners cannot be expected to choose targets without a true understanding of their meaning or relevance to their lives. When classroom teaching resumes, tutors should hold regular, collaborative discussion about targets and use learners’ personal needs to support them to choose goals they will be motivated to work towards. The language used to help learners reflect and identify gaps in learning should be specific and should relate to it.

As with learning, reflecting on learning works best when it takes place in an environment where a learner feels safe. A safe environment is essential for learners to learn, reflect and identify targets effectively. Consideration should be made for all learners to feel comfortable when talking about their strengths and weaknesses, not just those who are confident speaking in front of peers. A blended model that combines classroom and in-cell teaching and learning would provide learners with flexibility and safety.

This project encourages tutors at HMP Liverpool to prioritise collaborative discussion between tutors and learners which will make learning and targets relevant for men as well as building flexible teaching models that cater for a variety of learners’ needs and motivations.