Helping ‘left behind’ children to learn
By Alison Broady,
Ministry of Justice data shows that 57 per cent of adult prisoners have literacy levels below those expected of an 11-year-old.
"There are few skills which have a bigger impact on a person’s life than being able to read. For those in prison, this is even more noticeable."
“It’s just so frustrating and isolating when you can’t read.” These are the words of Paula during her first session with the reading tutor at HMP/YOI Low Newton in County Durham. Paula left school at 14 when she became pregnant and always had other priorities, so never learned to read properly. It wasn’t until she came to prison and didn’t have the support of family and friends to read and complete forms for her that she realised just how fundamentally important the skill is.
Ministry of Justice data shows that 57 per cent of adult prisoners have literacy levels below those expected of an 11-year-old. There are few skills which have a bigger impact on a person’s life than being able to read. For those in prison, this is even more noticeable. Those with low reading ability struggle to understand vital written information, from legal correspondence to food menus and letters from their families. They are at greater risk of becoming isolated and cut off from the education and work opportunities which are available in prison.
During my Churchill Fellowship visits to Norway and Holland, I saw at first hand the impact that key life and work-related skills, such as reading, has on a prisoner’s future employment, life chances and reintegrating into society. The social enterprise I work for Novus, provides education in prisons and has been working collaboratively with prison leaders to co-design reading strategies with the aim of embedding a focus around reading across each prison. Something this important and potentially life-changing for many prisoners should not exist purely within the four walls of the classroom. One of the key recommendations from my Fellowship research related to the development of these wider core skills, the use of assessment and technology to support prisoners.
We piloted and then rolled out the prison service reading screener, an initial screening of individuals’ strengths and weaknesses when it comes to reading, which is now embedded into the induction programme at all sites. Learners who receive this screening then have a personalised support plan put in place, with those requiring assistance being passed to the provision best placed to help them in the prison.
One part of this support is that of a reading specialist. Having reading specialists working alongside the existing functional skills tutors, library staff and other agencies who assist reading in prisons has been an important piece in the jigsaw. A coordinated approach to reading means we can best target the support for our most vulnerable learners. This has also enabled us to start delivering reading help and intervention sessions with those learners whose support plan identifies this need.
A crucial part of this strategy was to upskill staff in the teaching of phonics. Specialist training in this area has now been delivered across all sites, which builds on the requirement for functional skills staff to study a level 5 functional skills English and maths practitioner’s course.
But beyond this, it’s been important to bring forward a cultural shift towards promoting a ‘love of reading’ on all sites. This started through positive role modelling, with staff running their own book clubs and focusing on key subject reading in their courses. Throughout the year, staff have brought forward reading initiatives on site, which focus on the different type of readers we work with.
The ‘Drop Everything and Read’ initiative, for instance, focuses on learners who don’t frequently read, with the aim of encouraging learners and staff alike to set aside some time each day with a book. It has been brilliant to see both prisoners and staff taking this approach to heart. For those who tended to stick to the same genre of reading, staff brought in the ‘Date a Book’ initiative. It’s now common to see a prisoner taking a book from the library, which is gift wrapped, so they can’t see what’s inside. Many then complete a ‘dating review’ of the book, with a high number going on, to use Tinder parlance, to ‘swipe right’!
The importance of this work is best summed up by Paula, who has now been working with the reading specialist at Low Newton for over two months. “I now feel more confident with reading, I even have books that I can read now. I can understand what [a book] says as I’ve learnt to split the words up…it’s really helping with applications and [filling in] my canteen sheets. I just didn’t read because I couldn’t, but now I can.”
The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.
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