Previous levels of education and motivations to participation

Various pieces of literature propose that previous levels of education have a role to play in a prisoner’s motivation to participate in education, arguing that those with higher levels of previous education are more likely to engage with education in prison (Forster, 1990; Manger et al., 2013). Costelloe (2003) argues that previous education is one of the primary factors in the motivation to participate. Those with less education will be motivated by push factors, while those who are more educated will tend to be more intrinsically motivated (Costelloe, 2003; Forster, 1990; Manger et al., 2013). While the sample size in the current study lacked the numbers to conduct any significant statistical analysis on this point, the qualitative findings in the current study appear to contradict previous studies. The vast majority of prisoners who were participating in prison education had not completed second-level education, with most leaving around the age of 15. Only a very small minority of participants had completed or continued beyond second-level education or had undertaken any form of trade-related education or apprenticeships. Conversely, a more significant portion of the prisoners who were not participating in education had either finished secondary school or had completed some form of further education as part of an apprenticeship. Therefore, it appears that those with higher levels of education were not more motivated to participate. In fact it appears that those with lower levels of education are more motivated to participate in prison education. There is little guidance in the findings to explain this. One explanation might be that prisoners with low levels of education would be inclined to participate in order to address their deficit in education. Yet this was only stated as a motivation to participate by a few of the participants. Alternatively, Chao (2009), referring to adult education in the mainstream sense, proposes that people access education when dispositional factors are strong enough to outweigh situational, institutional and informational barriers to participation. What this means is that while someone might want to participate in education, there are barriers to doing so such as work or finance. Many of the prisoners who were participating in education, despite not having finished secondary school, gave accounts of enjoying school but leaving in order to get a job with a view to having income for themselves and their family. This represented a situational barrier to completing their education. These barriers may be lower in the prison setting, allowing for access to education during their sentence. Furthermore, a negative experience of mainstream education in their youth was found to be a significant dispositional barrier to participation. Most of the prisoners who were participating in education had enjoyed school and therefore did not face this barrier to participation. These points will be explored further in the next section on the barriers to participation in prison education.

Summary and discussion: motivations to participate in prison education

Overall, the findings in the current study were in line with previous studies in the area. They were particularly reflective of the outcomes found in the only other Irish study, where Costelloe (2003) found that escape was the most common motivation for participation in education. In the current research, escape represented a strong push factor, with many of the participants stating that they were trying to avoid several aspects of prison life. Many mentioned boredom, but others talked about escaping situations and people. The findings show that despite escape appearing to be the least desirable reason for participation, it was often representative of deeply personal and positive motives towards change. This included such things as avoiding criminal peers or avoiding situations where drug use was a possibility. Therefore, behind these push motives lay evidence of change and perhaps the early stages of desistance.

Many participants were also motivated by pull factors and using education to address educational deficits from their youth to support their post-release goals and acquire skills or knowledge in an area that interests them. This is in line with various previous studies in this area (Diseth et al., 2008; Manger et al., 2013; Roth and Manger, 2014).

One of the most interesting findings related to the transformation of motivations that occurred for many of the participants. Costelloe (2003) and Forster (1990) stated that motivations can evolve over time, and those who are previously motivated by purely push factors can subsequently change to more pull-orientated reasons for participation. This was reflected in the finding of the current research where many of those who began taking classes as a mechanism of avoidance ended up continuing their studies out of enjoyment and in order to increase their education and support their chances on release. This reflects the evolution of motivations that can occur and shows the importance of simply getting prisoners to the prison school to give the best chance of engaging with and remaining in education throughout their sentence.

Finally, the findings in the current study tended to indicated that those who had lower levels of education are more likely to participate based on pull factors such wanting to gain an education. They also tended to be younger, wanted to plan for the future and were under taking education to support post-release goals. This is generally in line with the outcomes in previous studies (Forster, 1990; Costelloe, 2003; Manger et al., 2013; Roth and Manger, 2014), but there was little to explain the reasons for these findings. It is speculated that the younger participants are more mindful of the lifetime they have in front of them to set and achieve goals. They may be using education as part of their plan. Those who were older were less likely to be participating in education and tended to see the education levels they had as being enough for them, their lower levels of education apparently having done them no harm.

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