Learning Basic Skills while Serving Time

Country Profile: Norway


5,083,000 (2013)

Official Language

Bokmal Norwegian, Nynorsk Norwegian

Other spoken languages

Sami and Finnish

Total Expenditure on Education as % of GDP

7.32% (2012)

Adult Literacy Rate (2013)

PIAAC test results – percentage of adults scoring at each proficiency level in literacy – Level 1 represents the lowest level of proficiency, Level 5 the highest):

Below Level 1: 3%
Level 1: 9.3%
Level 2: 30.2%
Level 3: 41.6%
Level 4: 13.1%
Level 5: 0.6%

Statistical Sources

  • UNESCO Institute for Statistics UIS
  • OECD
  • Programme Overview

    Programme TitleLearning Basic Skills while Serving Time
    Implementing OrganizationVox, the Norwegian Agency for Lifelong Learning
    Language of InstructionNorwegian
    FundingVox and government institutions
    Programme PartnersBastoy Prison and Horton Upper Secondary School
    Date of Inception2009

    Country Context

    Norwegian population data reveal some of the highest levels of literacy and numeracy skills among industrialized countries. A 2013 OECD study of adult skills ranked adults in Norway sixth for literacy and fifth for numeracy proficiency out of 22 developed countries. However, a significant share of Norwegian adults have poor literacy and numeracy skills, with 12 per cent of adults achieving only Level 1 or below in literacy proficiency and another 15 per cent attaining Level 1 or below for numeracy (OECD, 2012b).

    Norway is also one of the world’s most advanced countries when it comes to providing reintegration services to prison inmates. In 1998, the Norwegian Ministry of Justice focused its correctional services on rehabilitating prisoners by providing education, job training and therapy. Furthermore, in 2007, the ministry expanded reintegration efforts by helping inmates with housing and job placement for their lives after prison. In addition, Norway’s prisons rely on a correctional service regime known as ‘dynamic security’, which seeks to establish interpersonal relationships between prison staff and inmates in an effort to promote the reintegration of prisoners. So far, the focus on reintegration has paid off as Norway now has a reoffending rate of less than 30 per cent, the lowest in Europe (Benko, 2015).

    The Bastoy Prison complex south of Oslo is an example of the government’s focus on rehabilitation. Renowned for its social approach to correctional services, Bastoy Prison achieved Europe’s lowest reoffending rate of 16 per cent by providing prisoners with work, education and training, and by treating them with respect and fairness (James, 2013). The Vox programme, Learning basic skills while serving time, was part of the prison education service to Bastoy inmates, and was replicated at all other major prisons in Norway in subsequent years. As such, Learning basic skills while serving time is an important component of the government’s efforts to reintegrate prisoners and reduce reoffending.

    Programme Overview

    First implemented in 2009, Learning basic skills while serving time was the first of 14 prison education programmes funded by the Norwegian Agency for Lifelong Learning, Vox, to address the literacy and numeracy attainment of prisoners in Norway. The main aim of the programme was to improve the educational attainment of inmates by promoting close cooperation between the Bastoy Prison School and the workshops offered to inmates. As a pilot programme, an additional aim of Learning basic skills while serving time was to understand how best to conduct literacy teaching in a prison environment.

    The programme consisted of reading and writing and numeracy courses, facilitated by both teachers and prison staff over a four-month period. By employing a participatory teaching approach and focusing on assignments related to prisoners' daily work and routines, the programme facilitators managed to increase the literacy and numeracy skills of participants, better prepare inmates for a life after prison, and boost the confidence and self-esteem of participating inmates.

    Aims and Objectives

    The programme had the following objectives:

    Programme Implementation

    The programme took place in spring 2009 and lasted for four months. Inmates took three classes a week, one each on reading, writing and numeracy, on three different days. The classes lasted from 9am until noon. The main facilitator of the programme was the teacher from the Bastoy Prison School, who implemented the programme in close corporation with the prison staff running the workshops. The programme cooperated with a number of workshops held in different parts of the prison, such as the stables, the kitchen, the pottery and textile work area, and a prison shop.

    Learners' Enrolment and Establishing Learning Needs

    Facilitators chose eight participants for the reading and writing group and five learners for the numeracy group, from around 115 inmates in Bastoy Prison. The inmates were chosen on the basis of preliminary screening but could decline to participate even if eligible for the programme. The previous experiences and everyday life of participating inmates guided the establishment of learning needs. Specifically, the assessment of learning needs was based on three guiding principles:

    Teaching and Learning: Approaches and Methodologies

    The facilitators of Learning basic skills while serving time placed emphasis on a customized teaching approach by taking each participant’s needs into account. The first component of this tailored teaching approach was to ensure that participating inmates showed initiative by formulating learning needs and bringing in materials they needed help with. For example, participants received help on feeding plans for livestock in the stable, and on kitchen rules. Teachers also put emphasis on incorporating small-group work, dialogue and discussion into the classroom to actively involve participants in the learning process. In addition, the programme built on Vox’s competence goals for reading and writing and numeracy, which enable teachers to tailor learning goals according to each learner’s needs and pre-existing knowledge.

    The competence goals for reading and numeracy outline three levels of literacy skills development. Each level consists of goals in reading and understanding, writing and communicating, and basic reading and writing strategies. Similarly, the numeracy course was based on Vox’s competency goals for numeracy, which encompass three skill levels in numbers, measurement and statistics. Successfully completing the third level provides learners with knowledge equivalent to a lower secondary school certificate. After evaluating the participant’s background and existing knowledge, teachers at Bastoy Prison structured teaching around literacy levels 1 and 2.

    Literacy levels Description
    1 Level 1 refers to individuals with very poor literacy skills who have difficulty understanding simple texts or instructions.
    2 These individuals can cope with simple texts but struggle to read and comprehend novel texts.
    3 Individuals with Level 3 literacy skills can meet demands in their everyday life and work and have sufficient literacy skills to complete secondary school successfully and enter college.
    4-5 Denote individuals with higher-order information processing skills.

    Source: Vox

    Teaching Content

    Reading and Writing Course

    The course content consisted of assignments, writing exercises and discussion, which were applicable to the daily lives of participants. For instance, participants received help from the teacher when they needed to address the Bastoy Prison authorities in writing. Participants also received help in writing private letters, curricula vitae and job applications. Furthermore, the teacher assisted participants with the special responsibilities they took on while in prison. For example, participants received assistance in formulating notes and making lists pertaining to tasks such as garbage disposal, cleaning routines, and coffee purchase. In addition, participants practised typing on computer keyboards and learned how to use Microsoft Word.

    A central element of the programme was the workplace-based assignments developed jointly by prison officers and the teacher. The officers in charge of the cleaning department, the kitchen and the prison tables and cowshed would assign participants with reading and writing workplace-related texts. After completing a draft of their assignments, participants would prepare a final version in class with the help of the teacher. Most importantly, the workplace-related assignments extended the learning of participants beyond the classroom to encompass the entire working day by incorporating various reading and writing assignments into the regular work. For example, inmates were asked to write out invoices or to draft lists and instructions.

    Over time, participants would take on more complex writing assignments previously undertaken by officers. Such assignments included writing meeting notes, drafting reports, setting up work plans, revising instructions, and formulating workplace-specific procedures. However, participants were not allowed to work on certain important texts, such as quality-control and self-reporting forms, due to the quality and security concerns of prison management.

    The workplace-related assignments were in turn used by the teacher as a basis for discussing how to read and write different types of texts. By looking at their assignments, participants were able to discuss sentence structure, orthography, key words and techniques for taking notes, while developing their awareness of the use of different types of text.

    Numeracy Course

    The programme’s numeracy course taught mathematical operations relevant to the prisoners’ everyday lives. The mathematical concepts taught in class followed the numeracy competence goals of Vox and included integers, the four main forms of calculation, mental arithmetic and percentages. Moreover, through the use of the spreadsheet programme Excel, inmates learned how to keep track of their personal finances.

    Teaching Materials

    The use of computers played a central role throughout the programme. Each participant had access to one laptop for the duration of the programme, which could be used during class and leisure time to complete assignments. The computer also provided learners with educational software for spelling training, music and movies. Participants enrolled in the numeracy course used Excel and calculators to improve their numeracy skills. Learners were also encouraged to play the computer game, The Quest for Ada, in their free time, as it involves the practice of reading, writing and numeracy skills. As Bastoy is a low-security prison, participants had access to the internet. The internet is unavailable to inmates in prisons with higher security levels.

    This picture shows women working in a prison’s kitchen while learning basic skills. Here the focus is on mathematics and oral skills.

    This picture shows women working in a prison’s kitchen while learning basic skills. Here the focus is on mathematics and oral skills.

    Monitoring and Evaluation

    Learner progress on the programme was evaluated through a survey that asked participants three questions following each training session:

    This direct feedback enabled the teacher to assess how much students took away from lessons and whether the learning tempo was suitable, which in turn allowed the teacher to adapt learning speed and content.

    Impact and Challenges

    Impact and Achievements

    The main outcomes of the programme have been the strengthening of literacy and numeracy skills and the promotion of participants' motivation and self-confidence. Specific results include the following:

    Lessons Learned


    According to programme coordinators, literacy programmes in a prison environment encounter the following challenges:


    Learning basic skills while serving time functioned as a pilot programme for twelve additional prison education projects with the same pedagogical model. These programmes were held in both male and female prisons, ranging from low- to high-security. After each project ends, the respective prison becomes responsible for the implementation of further courses. From 2010 to 2012, Vox implemented the following projects in prisons throughout Norway:

    Projects Workshop Basic Skills
    Ullersmo prison and Jessheim upper secondary school. Situated in the eastern part of Norway, east of Oslo, near Oslo airport Construction, carpentry, cleaning Reading and writing, numeracy, digital competences
    Ila prison and Rud upper secondary school. Situated in the eastern part of Norway (30 kilometers west of Oslo city) Production of small items (small industries), handicraft Reading and writing, numeracy, digital competences
    Bredtveit (a women’s prison) and Grønland upper secondary school for adults. Situated in Oslo city Carpentry, handicraft design, art Numeracy and digital competences, oral competence
    Åna prison and Time upper secondary school. Situated in the southwestern part of Norway (near Stavanger city) Farming Writing, numeracy, digital competences
    Bruvoll prison and Skarnes upper secondary school. Situated in the eastern part of Norway, near Kongsvinger City Carpentry, garden tables Numeracy and reading
    Stavanger prison and Randaberg upper secondary school. Situated in the southwestern part of Norway Horticulture greenhouse Writing ad digital
    Hustad prison and Romsdal upper secondary school. Situated in the western part of Norway, mid-Norway, near Molde and Kristiansund city Workshop carpentry (building hen houses), entrepreneurship Reading and writing, numeracy, digital competences
    Oslo prison and Grønland upper secondary school for adults. Situated in Oslo city Cleaning Oral competences
    Ravneberget prison (for women). Situated in the south eastern part of Norway, near Sarpsborg city Coking Oral competences and numeracy
    Berg prison and Færder secondary school in the south-eastern part of Norway Automobile care Oral competences, reading and numeracy

    In 2015, Vox began to take an active role in presenting the results and experiences from these programmes at a regional and national level in an effort to motivate other Norwegian prisons to implement similar prison education programmes.



    Ms. Valborg Byholt
    Senior Advisor
    VOX - Norwegian Agency for Lifelong Learning
    P.O. Box 236, Sentrum, N-0103 OSLO
    Phone: +47 23 38 13 40

    Last update: 6 June 2016