'Old wine in new bottles?' New approaches to maths in prison

by Catherine Byrne, City of Dublin Education Service to Prisons

In Cloverhill Prison in October we celebrated Maths Week 2014. The education unit organised a series of events, in partnership with the Red Cross Community Based Health & First Aid (CBHFA) Prison Volunteers. First we had a forum on “Me and Maths”, facilitated by the Red Cross volunteers who also helped students to prepare. There were teachers from Cloverhill and other prisons, as well as prisoners who were attending the school. Everyone spoke for a short time on their experiences of maths in work or education, what helped them learn and how they felt about maths now. This gave real feedback to the teachers on the effects of learning maths. Then we had a PowerPoint Maths Week Table Quiz where people formed their own teams. The feedback received was that the day was great fun, that it helped everyone learn in collaboration with each other, and helped the students realise that what they saw as common sense was in fact maths.

They say that we all have the “maths gene” and using the maths part of the brain brings it to life. 

There are benefits of returning to study maths in prison.  Maths can distract from boredom; doing pages of worksheets or puzzles helps students to settle in the prison classroom. 

Most people (teachers and students) have a story from their maths learning history that they are willing to share: in Ireland it is cool to say “I’m no good at maths!”  This helps bonding in the class.  Maths homework can “make time go faster” and being seen as a student of maths (a “brainy” subject) can help improve a student’s self-esteem. 

All adults have acquired invisible maths skills through living, and discovering these hidden skills in the prison classroom is a great boost to self-esteem. 

Maths certification is available in a wide range of areas at levels 2 and 3 in the QQI framework (e.g. Number, Data, Problem Solving, Pattern and Relationship, Shape and Space) so there is something for all interests. 

Maths can be a gateway subject to education and can also be a tool in recovery from addiction. Research has indicated that many in prison have mental health and addiction problems and it has been suggested that people with low levels of literacy and numeracy skills may be more vulnerable to being depressed. 

Prison education aims to help prisoners to cope with their imprisonment, to achieve personal development, to prepare for life after release and to establish the appetite and capacity for lifelong learning. 

So maths really matters in the prison classroom.



  • Bynner, J. (2001) Improving Adult Basic Skills Bene fits to the Individual and to Society, DfEE Research Centre 
  • Keane, M. (2011) The Role Of Education In Developing Recovery Capital In Recovery From Substance Addiction. Dublin: Soilse Drug Rehabilitation Project 
  • Kennedy, HG, S Monks, K Curtin, B Wright, S Linehan, D Duy, C Teljeur, A Kelly, (2004), Mental Illness in Irish Prisoners Psychiatric Morbidity in Sentenced, Remanded and Newly Committed Prisoners National Forensic Mental Health Service Central Mental Hospital



hi there,

This article is so inspiring for all Adult Literacy and Numeracy Tutors, however, some prisons or indeed ETBs are not as open to this as others. When I suggested I work in Limerick some years back I was very discouraged and am still interesting in making some difference in the lives of prisons. At the time the ETBs were not fully up to speed and where in the process of changing from VECs to ETBs at the time. As I am now a Post Graduate of the Professional Diploma in Education-FE at NUI, Galway part-time, I now need to get teaching placement and so far have secured some of the 100 hours, but not all. Could you give me any advice of how I might contact the prison service again, now that I have one year of my Professional Teaching qualification completed and so far my results have been good and provisionally so far I got 2 2.1s and 1 2.2 in my three modules and also possess 2 BA Degrees from UL and the Open University.

Many thanks for all help or advise you could offer me.

Trainee mature teacher FE Co. Clare and also registered with the Irish Teaching Council in German

Hi there,

Yes, agree with you that Catherine's blog is inspirational.

Each prison education service is part of its local ETB (Education and Training Board). There used to be a coordinator for the prison education service nationwide. However, this is no longer the case. So, if you'd like to contact one of the prisons in Dublin city for example, you should go through the City of Dublin ETB at www.cityofdublinetbprisoneducationservice  and for Limerick prison you'd go through Limerick and Clare ETB and so on.

Good luck with this

Fergus Dolan, NALA


It's amazing! Keep up! Maths really matters
Also I going to write my essay about similar theme. And this information are very helpful for me.