A World Apart? Evaluation of Family Learning Programmes in Prison

Karen Halsey, John Harland, Annie Johnson, Salpal Kaur

01 August 2004

Whilst many prisons run parenting courses as a means of enhancing family life once a prisoner is released, only a few have extended the provision to encompass the prisoner and his family during the period of his sentence. The two prisons that formed the focus of this evaluation devised programmes that sought to serve an educational purpose, as well as providing an opportunity for bringing families together. NFER was commissioned by the DfES to undertake a small-scale, in-depth evaluation, examining the outcomes arising from two family learning programmes, as well issues concerned with their implementation.


Whilst parenting programmes are increasingly becoming an established component of the prison education curriculum, family learning takes the educational experience a step further, enabling men to put their learning into practice. Introducing such a programme into a prison setting, however, is no easy task. Organisers must be prepared to state a case for family learning, win the support and cooperation of other prison staff, secure funding, address any security issues and identify staff with the necessary experience to oversee proceedings. Yet if the positive outcomes of the programmes can be recognised and widely disseminated, then the status of family learning will ultimately profit, which in turn will promote its uptake as an educational and rehabilitative activity.

About the study

The evaluation was guided by four key aims:

  • to gather evidence on the impacts and outcomes arising from the two family learning programmes (both for prisoners and their families)
  • to identify ways in which the existing provision is organised, designed and delivered
  • to examine which aspects of the design and delivery of the programmes may be related to the outcomes, thereby highlighting examples of effective practice in the arena of family learning
  • to consider the implementation implications for other prisons that are interested in running a family learning programme.

Data was collected through interviews with 39 participants (including prisoners and partners) and 13 prison/education staff.

Key Findings

The evaluation unearthed a strong weight of evidence to suggest that the family learning programmes offered considerably more benefits to participants than the family contact experienced during normal visits. On a fundamental level, the programmes maintained father-child interaction during the prisoner’s sentence. The quality of interaction, however, was seen as instrumental to the programmes’ success. During sessions, families were at liberty to engage with their children in a natural manner, to observe their development, learn from other families and to appreciate the educational value in purposeful play.

Amongst the many effects of participation were prisoners who re-examined their attitudes to parenting, showed a greater appreciation of their children and, both for mothers and fathers, the acquisition of parenting strategies. Furthermore, there was confirmation from previous participants, now reunited with their families, that the impact of the programmes could be sustained in the longer term.

All participants were happy to recommend the experience to other families. When comparing the family learning programme to other courses they had attended, some men explained that the programme was ‘different’, due to its broader focus on the family (rather than the individual) and the opportunity to engage with their children. A larger proportion concluded that the programme had been better than their previous experience of courses, explaining that the presence of the family enabled them to put their parenting skills into practice. A small number of prisoners, reflecting on their attendance at various courses in prison, stated that the family learning programme had been the best they had experienced so far.