Teaching offenders to code: supporting digital skills and reducing reoffending among those leaving prison

Breaking the cycle of reoffending by teaching prisoners to code

In the UK, we have one of the highest numbers of adults in prison in western Europe, and of those who have been in prison, almost half will re-offend within a year of release. Reoffending in the UK is estimated to cost as much as £15bn each year. One of the major factors in reducing reoffending is finding and sustaining employment upon leaving prison, however, it has been suggested that the skills and training that offenders receive while in prison only prepares them in a limited way for life “on the outside”.

The importance of digital literacy and the disadvantage caused by a digital skills deficit

Whether it is applying for benefit payments, booking a doctor’s appointment, online shopping, paying council tax or word processing and data navigation in a wide range of today’s job roles, having a basic understanding of digital literacy is important. For many people these skills are acquired over time, sometimes even by accident as we come into contact with more and more digital services in our day to day lives, including in many of today’s jobs where word processing and email skills seem to be a given.

However, for people leaving prison, perhaps who have been away from the fast pace of digital development for a few years, the leaps and bounds in terms of technological change and how we use digital platforms for a range of tasks can be a daunting prospect. While there is some exposure to digital platforms inside prisons, there are increasing calls to ensure that in order to better reintegrate into society on release from prison, digital skills should be higher up the agenda for those prisoners being prepared for release.

Linking digital skill programmes to labour market need

While we raise concerns about digital literacy, it is also widely reported that the UK is facing a digital skills deficit, with job roles going unfilled because there are not enough skilled individuals to fill them. Why not then, supporters argue, align the two policies to meet a need within the skills market and better support offenders to be able to live a full, digitally literate life on their release from prison.

In his Ted talk on teaching coding in prisons, Michael Taylor highlights some of, what he sees as, the key issues with the current skills and training programme in prisons: it is mundane and repetitive, and it is not linked to skills or labour market need. Coding, he argues, in addition to being accessible, cheap to teach and not requiring any pre-requisite qualifications, is an easy way that prisoners can be equipped with high-level digital skills to help them find employment, and teach skills that employers want and need to employ.

He also argues that coding is a way to equip offenders with the basic tools to go into a range of careers or further training across a range of occupations, in a range of sectors doing a wide range of different jobs – giving the variety and scope for development that many offenders simply don’t get from current skills and training programmes. The benefits, he argues, go beyond just teaching the ins and outs of how to code, with digital skills having wider applicability around managing information, communicating, transacting, problem solving and creating as well as raising confidence and self esteem.

Learning from digital skill programmes in prisons elsewhere

The Last Mile programme in California is being used as a model to create a UK based coding programme for prisoners. The programme teaches digital skills, specifically coding, to allow offenders to find employment once they leave prison. The American programme is based out of San Quentin prison and has consistently shown positive outcomes for participants, with a recidivism rate for participants dropping from over 70% to 0 in the latest cohort of “graduates”. These positive and tangible outcomes are one of the reasons supporters have been so keen to roll out a similar scheme in the UK.

The UK Government has acknowledged this evidence and in March 2019 the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced it is investing in two pilot schemes, one at HMP Humber and one at HMP Holme House which will see a selection of “carefully vetted prisoners” participate in new digital skills programmes. Prisoners will learn CSS, HTML and JavaScript before moving on to more advanced coding techniques. They will then be invited to work for partner companies, eventually on day release, with a view to better preparing them for work when they are released from prison, while also helping employers manage perceived risks that come with hiring former offenders.

Final thoughts

Offenders leaving prison face a number of barriers to successful reintegration into the community, and preparing them fully to meet all of these challenges can be a difficult task in itself. However, by better equipping offenders with digital skills we will enable them to leave prison with knowledge employers are looking for. Coding programmes could be one route to developing skills for prisoners due for release which can help them adapt to life outside prison, give them purpose and options and, it is hoped, reduce the likelihood of reoffending in the future.


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The myth of the digital native? Young people, education and digital participation in Scotland

Digital participation has been high on Scotland’s political agenda of late. Connectivity featured as a key pledge during the SNP spring conference in March. Meanwhile, both Scotland’s Digital Participation Charter and the UK government digital strategy are looking to engage those people who don’t have access to, or who do not feel confident using, technology.

Increasingly, the focus is on young people, many of whom do not remember life without internet access or mobile phones. The term being used for such young consumers of technology is “digital natives” – a digitally proficient generation which is more reliant on digital technology than older generations.

However, while in some areas of Scotland more than 80% of young people now have access to a tablet or a smartphone, their depiction as a “digital generation” may not be as accurate as first thought.

Digital competence isn’t inevitable

Some academics have challenged the notion of a “digital native”, observing that children only become digitally active if they are exposed to digital media from a young age. While a lot of research has been conducted around the impact of digital technology on those who have access, for example understanding how it effects family dynamics or health and wellbeing, less is known about the impact of not having exposure to digital technology.

This is something which needs to be explored further, and highlights that the term “universal digital native” is misleading. For example, in many areas of Scotland 17% of the population have no internet access.

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Image by Intel Free Press via Creative Commons

School-based initiatives to improve digital exposure and digital literacy

Research into digitally excluded children emphasises the important role of education on children’s digital development. School could potentially be the only opportunity for some children to receive guided exposure to the digital world, highlighting the importance of integrating digital literacy into the wider curriculum.

Individual schools have their own schemes to promote digital literacy. However, some barriers are holding children back from harnessing their potential, including:

  • allotted Information and Communications Technology (ICT) slots
  • teachers who are reluctant to teach extensively with ICT because of gaps in their own digital skills
  • concerns about exposing children to potentially harmful material.

Secondary schools in Inverclyde have trialled a ‘bring your own device’ scheme, where children use their own digital devices in lessons. Initially, there were concerns about the potential exclusion of those children who did not have their own computing devices, and about personal information being transferred across shared school networks. However, steps were taken to ensure a stock of school devices were available for those children who were unable to bring a device, that networks were secure, and that strict rules regarding the use of the technology were enforced.

Children were encouraged to work in pairs or groups to help with communication, partnership working and sharing of knowledge, which also reduced the number of personal devices in use. The scheme is still in its infancy, but already it has enabled digital technologies to be incorporated into many aspects of the Curriculum for Excellence, including: internet research, app design, online learning games and tools, photography and recording of voice notes.

UK- wide rollout of coding scheme

At a UK level, children in year 7 in England and Wales, S1 in Scotland and year 8 in Northern Ireland (aged 12) are being given the opportunity to learn how to code through a scheme rolled out by the BBC in partnership with 29 other key organisations, including Microsoft, Samsung and Barclays. The BBC Micro: Bit initiative provides children with a pocket sized computer which they can code to bring digital ideas to life. The computers are compatible with other devices, such as the Raspberry Pi, and so can be used as a springboard to more complex coding and computer programming.

The computer provision is supported by online learning resources, which teach coding techniques and give ideas about the sort of actions children can code their Micro: Bit to complete. It’s hoped that the initiative will inspire more young people to study computer science at degree level.

Implications of the digital native for education

It is clear that the education system needs to adapt to incorporate digital practice into everyday teaching. However, this has generated some debate surrounding the implications for education of the ‘digital native’ concept: how can you teach a child if they are (or are perceived to be) more proficient than their teacher? How do you integrate new technology into teaching if the teacher and pupil are learning about it at the same time?

However, failure to tackle the issues of integrating “digital” successfully into the curriculum, and digital exclusion in schools and at home could also have serious implications. If a significant portion of the next generation is digitally excluded this potentially puts them at a significant disadvantage in terms of employment and further education.


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Digital childhoods: what technology means for the development of children

By Rebecca Jackson

The recent advancement of technology in society has been fast and significant. Young adults who were children themselves less than 15 years ago have admitted that, even to them, the difference in ‘childhood’ as they remember it and how it appears to be today is stark. And for many older members of the public, the advances have made ‘childhood’ almost unrecognisable. The Scottish Universities Insight Institute is currently running a series of seminars looking at digital technology across the life course, one of which considered the role of technology in relation to young children.

Creative Commons,Ty, 2007

Image by Ty via Creative Commons

Common misconceptions

The debate around the use of digital technology by children is fraught with hearsay and sometimes distorted reporting of statistics in the mainstream media. This has resulted in confusion about what it means to be digitally literate, and an emphasis on the negative views that people have about children using technology.

These are some of the most common misconceptions as identified by a group of researchers from the Scottish Universities Insight Institute:

  • Digital technology is just laptops and computers: When many people refer to ‘digital technology’ they talk about laptops, tablet computers and desktops. In fact, the term covers a far wider range of devices and activities. This includes cameras, video games consoles, streaming music or listening to an mp3 player or iPod, using Skype or FaceTime to communicate, mobile phones, streaming videos on youtube and watching TV or DVDs.
  • Less affluent socioeconomic groups don’t have access to digital technology: While academics commented that their study showed there may not have been as many devices in lower income households, most still had access to mobile phones, televisions, the internet, a games console, an interactive toy, an mp3 player or IPod, camera or a tablet computer.
  • Children engaging with digital technology comes at the expense of ‘traditional play’: Studies have shown that, contrary to popular belief, children still have more access to, and spend more time playing with, ‘traditional toys’ such as dolls, cars, soft toys and outdoor equipment. The study also highlighted that children use digital experiences to inform their own imaginative play. They were observed acting out scenes or engaging with imaginary characters from films or television programmes and pretending to use laptops and mobile phones during play, rather than using them directly.
  • Children know more about digital technology than adults: Children don’t know anything until they are exposed to it – much of children’s exposure comes from parents and is representative of the use by other family members. A study also showed that if a child was completing an activity using digital technology (a video game for example) which they found too difficult or “fiddly” then this could deter them from using technology in the future.
  • Children using digital technology are more socially isolated and reclusive: This is a common stereotype which is normally directed at older children and adolescents. However children of all ages have been found to use digital technology as a facilitator of social relationships. This includes the use of websites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as the use of Skype and FaceTime to communicate with overseas relatives or friends.
Creative Commons,Antonio Thomás Koenigkam Oliveira, 2012

Image by Antonio Thomás Koenigkam Oliveira via Creative Commons

Blended learning

Many academics who study the impact of digitisation on children (or people in general) highlight the unhelpful nature of the “good/bad” debate.  As one researcher at a recent conference held at Strathclyde University stated: “Blended learning – a combination of digital and traditional learning – is best for children and their development; quite often in studies we have found that children do this naturally themselves.”

Examples of this which were given was a child acting out a scene from the Disney film Frozen with soft toys, once they had seen the film on the television. Others could include printing out characters from films or TV shows to colour in with pencil or crayon, and children using a camera to capture memories or take photos of things which are interesting to them while outside playing or on a walk.

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Image by Photoflurry via Creative Commons

Same moral objections, different context

The technology may be different, but the moral questions are the same ones that have been plaguing innovations and inventions for hundreds of years. The arrival of comics, the transmission of radio (which was once thought to be toxic for children to hear), the spread of ideas promoted by television, even the electrification of homes, have all been met with some level of trepidation by the general public. Fears about digital technology and the normalisation of its use in everyday life will, academics feel, eventually be surpassed by a new technology which we can panic over instead.

Use in education

This is one of the more contentious issues for many teachers and local authorities. There are questions about the extent to which digital technologies should be integrated in to the curriculum, particularly in the early years, and the role of the teacher in relation to digital learning. It is also clear that teacher enthusiasm and training in using digital technology is important to ensure that children get the most out of digital teaching.

Some schools have trialled bring your own device to school initiatives, although the reception given to these has been mixed. Many schools and teachers also make use of interactive whiteboards and on-line portals to set homework and to give children access to resources. There has been a suggestion that children and teachers should work with software developers to produce more apps, programmes and effective digital learning resources.

In Scotland, integrating digital elements to the curriculum has been improved by the transition to the Curriculum for Excellence. However, some schools still struggle with a lack of resources and have to continue to make use of an “ICT slot” in order to allow children to be able to access technology on a one-to-one basis.

The general consensus among education practitioners towards digital technology appears to be positive however, with many schools using online channels to communicate with pupils and parents. Some classes have blogs which the children are encouraged to contribute to, and others have utilised online web chats to twin with schools abroad in a  modern-day pen pal set up.

Creative Commons, Kathy Cassidy, 2006

Image by Kathy Cassidy via Creative Commons

A right to digital literacy?

Another issue being discussed by academics and policy makers is the idea of a right to digital literacy. In the view of many, digital learning should be integrated into everyday traditional learning to equip children with digital skills. Failing to prepare children, some academics argue, would inhibit their ability to contribute effectively in a digitised world.

It is clear that the debate around digital technology and child development will continue, and there is a need for both further study and better communication of research findings to the wider public.


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The Carnegie Trust and the Wheatley Group: showing us how we can tackle digital exclusion

By Steven McGinty

As the government pushes towards ‘digital by default’, a policy which envisions most public services being delivered online, it’s worth remembering that 20% of the UK population still lack basic internet skills. Groups such as Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) have raised concerns that ‘digital by default’ could significantly impact on vulnerable and marginalised communities, particularly those claiming welfare benefits. However, if every citizen had basic digital skills and could use online government services, it could save the public purse between £1.7 and £1.8 billion annually.

So, which groups are the most digitally excluded?

According to the UK Government’s digital inclusion strategy, digital exclusion occurs among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups in society. These include:

  • those living in social housing (approximately 37% of those digitally-excluded live in social housing);
  • those on low incomes (44% of people without basic digital skills are either on low wages or are unemployed);
  • those with disabilities (54% of people who have never been online have disabilities);
  • older people (69% of over 55’s are without basic digital skills);
  • young people (only 27% of young people who don’t have access to the internet are in full-time employment).

What are the main barriers to using online services?

In 2013, the Carnegie Trust carried out research into internet access in Glasgow. The findings suggest that there are three common reasons why people never go online:

  • the comfort of doing things offline (34% of people cited their preference for speaking to people on the telephone, or in person, as the reason they don’t go online);
  • a fear of digital technology and the internet ( 28% were worried about issues such as using technology and staying safe online);
  • the costs involved (20% of people highlighted pressures on incomes and the cost of internet connections).

What are the main drivers for people going online?

More recently, the Carnegie Trust carried out a new piece of research, replicating their Glasgow study in two new locations: Dumfries and Kirkcaldy. The study investigated the main reasons people choose to go online. The findings show that:

  • 56% of people went online to find information of interest to them;
  • 48% went online to keep in touch with friends and family;
  • 44% thought it would be an interesting thing to do;
  • 44% had to go online as part of their work.

 How can we encourage people to go online?

Both Carnegie Trust studies show that each individual’s journey to digital inclusion is different and that a ‘personal hook’ or motivation, such as the opportunity to communicate with family members abroad, is an important tool for encouraging digital participation.

Additionally, they also show that friends and family are an important source of help when people are taking their first steps online. For instance, the case studies in Dumfries and Kirkcaldy highlight that people would appreciate help from ‘trusted intermediaries’ or local groups.  Therefore, it’s important that digital participation initiatives make use of existing communities’ networks and tap into the support available from friends and families.

Wheatley Group

The Wheatley Group, which includes Scotland’s largest social landlord, the Glasgow Housing Association (GHA), has been heavily involved in addressing digital exclusion. They have developed a digital strategy to help social tenants access the internet and are committed to proving free or low cost internet access (maximum of £5 per month).

The Group has also been involved in two pilot projects: one which provides technology to 12 low-rise homes, and the Digital Demonstrator project, which tests the feasibility of low-cost broadband in multi-storey blocks. The pilot projects highlighted two important lessons:

  1. the role of the local Housing Officer was key for engaging with tenants
  2. it was important that communities and neighbours learned together.

In an ideal world, every citizen would be digitally literate, and be able to interact with government online. However, this is not the reality. The work carried out by the Carnegie Trust and the Wheatley Group provides a solid basis for developing digital initiatives and ensuring that citizens and communities are not left out.


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