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Prisons illiteracy review fails to mention dyslexia once

A new joint review by Ofsted and Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons (HMIP) published today has highlighted that reading education available to prisoners is minimal.

The report found numerous failings in the system to deliver reading education in prisons with reading not forming a distinct part of what prisoners are being taught, teaching focussed on passing qualifications rather than mastering the basics and prisoners with the greatest need to improve their reading receiving the least support. Ministry of Justice figures show that of prisoners taking assessments 57% had literacy levels below those expected of an 11-year-old.

Ofsted Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman said: “This research shines a light on the reading education that prisoners are getting, or in most cases, the lack of it. There are some serious systemic challenges, as well as plenty of poor practice. Little progress has been made in the priority of education since the Coates Review in 2016”.

Due to the prison education system’s focus on qualifications, prisoners in the greatest need of help to develop their reading skills are least likely to get it as there are no reading qualifications to teach for.

The report has already led to questions being raised in Parliament, including from Matt Hancock, the former Health Secretary and campaigner for dyslexia screening.

Matt Hancock following up on his dyslexia screening campaign

Shannon Trust

The report singles out the Shannon Trust as almost the sole source of reading education available to prisoners. There were several benefits prisons found in using the Shannon Trust which trains prisoners to become mentors to other prisoners resulting in supportive relationships, one to one support and a reduction in stigma felt in learning to read when compared to classroom lessons.

The utility of the Shannon Trust’s work was found to be both helped and hindered by it’s being independent from prison authorities. On the one hand they are dealing with a problem that has not been prioritised in policy but on the other, when Covid restrictions were scaled back they were often among the last programmes reinstated.

Dyslexia

The report suggests that the tests given to prisoners to access their reading knowledge are inappropriate as these are only intended to separate prisoners into the correct English course. It goes on to suggest that phonics screening would be a better assessment of reading ability saying of the current tests, “This type of assessment does not help leaders or teachers to identify whether learners have difficulty with reading”.

“The key is teaching prisoners how to learn in the first place. We know illiteracy is alarmingly high in the prison population but the real question is: why?  Many will have brain conditions that mean that adjustments are needed in order for them to be able to focus.”

Sir Robert Buckland, Former Justice Secretary

Notably absent from the report was any mention of dyslexia or dyslexia screening. Sir Robert Buckland, a former Justice Secretary said: “the key is teaching prisoners how to learn in the first place. We know illiteracy is alarmingly high in the prison population but the real question is: why?  Many will have brain conditions that mean that adjustments are needed in order for them to be able to focus.”

Final thought

The glaring omission of consideration of dyslexia and other conditions that will limit the ability of prisoners to learn to read is probably a reflection of just how rudimentary the education of prisoners is in this country.

The report’s main suggestion that the prison service first make reading part of the curriculum then institute tests that will identify prisoners reading level are a bare minimum and will soon need augmenting with provision for those who learn differently.

It was refreshing to see the report mention by name the Shannon Trust, a charity that like so many others help mend the gaps in the social fabric. While we shouldn’t be relying on charities to deliver our public services, policy makers should make use of these repositories of expertise when looking for solutions to problems.

Sadly, many of the reports findings are merely continuations of problems previously identified by the Coates Review in 2016. The question is when will the Government act on these findings?

Image Credit: Petr Brož

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