Lack of reading lessons for prisoners a ‘huge missed opportunity’ – report

Research finds lack of phonics screening for prisoners means they are not helped to improve their reading skills.

22 March 2022

Prisons are failing to improve the literacy skills of inmates, which is a “huge missed opportunity” to help prisoners gain vital skills.

A new combined report from Ofsted and HM Inspectorate of Prisons found that prison leaders were too focused on inmates gaining level 1 qualifications, despite up to half of the prison population lacking the literacy skills to take part.

In a survey of six prisons, inspectors also found that in some cases, teachers were discouraged from reading books to prisoners which meant they “resorted to worksheets for prisoners to complete, and the opportunity to demonstrate how reading a book could be enjoyable as well as instructional was missed”.

There was also a lack of suitable resources within prisons to help prisoners with learning to read, while many staff members did not know how to teach reading.

Early reading provision relied too heavily on voluntary organisations to deliver this, the report said, while in the prisons visited there was no routine phonics screening assessment to see whether prisoners could read or how the curriculum needed to be planned to fill in the gaps in their learning.

Prison libraries were also rarely used to support prisoners’ reading.

The report said that teachers reported staffing shortages caused by the pandemic made taking prisoners to the library “even more difficult”.

“In one prison, prisoners had to fill out a form to order a book, restricting access for those who could not write,” the report said.

Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said: “We know from our school inspections that children who struggle to read fall behind quickly and become disillusioned with education, and that this sometimes leads to issues with behaviour and exclusions.”

She added: “It is the same sad story with prisoners. Lack of access to education maintains inequality and seriously curtails a prisoner’s life chances.”

Ms Spielman said improving reading skills could improve prisoners’ ability to get a job and give them access to other educational opportunities that would improve their prospects after prison.

Ofsted found prisons are “not giving the right priority to improving prisoners’ reading skills” and that prison leaders must “find a way to improve the basic reading skills of the huge proportion of prisoners who currently lack them”.

Charlie Taylor, chief inspector of HM Inspectorate of Prisons, said it was “astonishing” prisoners could serve their sentence at a cost to the taxpayer of around £45,000 per year without improving their literacy skills.

“We know that many prisoners have had a disrupted schooling and that high numbers cannot read at all or are functionally illiterate, so it is very disappointing that this essential skill is given such a low profile in prisons,” he added.

Mr Taylor said contracts for education providers focused on level 1 qualifications rather than focusing on literacy skills. The issue is compounded by the lack of time prisoners spent out of their cells, which means that peer-to-peer mentoring schemes – such as those organised by the Shannon Trust, where prisoner mentors would support their peers – were not prioritised or could not go ahead.

“The failure to teach prisoners to read or to extend the literacy of poor readers is a huge missed opportunity,” he said.

“It means many prisoners do not get the benefits of reading while in prison. And it means that many will fail to learn the essential skills that will help them to resettle, get work and make a success of their lives when they are released.”

Peter Cox, managing director of Novus, a prison education social enterprise, said: “Reading is a fundamental skill and the starting point for learning, yet many prisoners arrive in their cells unable to read due to a host of complex reasons.”

“The biggest obstacle to improving literacy among prisoners is the available budget for prison education, which does not meet need.”

Kelly, a former prisoner, said: “Not being able to read well, or at all, means that many people in prisons have really limited choices when it comes to their life after release and increases their likelihood of returning to crime.

“During my time in prison, I met many women who couldn’t read or write. The things most us take for granted, like being able to read a job vacancy, completing an application form, or writing a CV, felt like an impossible task for them.

“I have had the privilege of mentoring people in prison and helping them improve their reading and writing. Seeing one person learn to read and write and turn their life around after being trapped in the revolving door of reoffending was just amazing.”

Prisons minister Victoria Atkins said: “We are determined to protect the public and cut re-offending through our ambitious plans to educate and rehabilitate offenders.

“The vast majority of jails have returned to face-to-face education since the period covered by this report – following the lifting of pandemic restrictions.

“Through our Prisons White Paper, we will put in place the skills training, employment opportunities and abstinence-based drug treatment to equip more offenders for a life free away from crime – cutting reoffending and protecting the public.”

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