The failure to teach prisoners to read or improve literacy was ‘a huge missed opportunity’ and ‘a serious indictment’ of our jails, according to the chief prisons inspector. According to the most recent Ministry of Justice data, almost six out of 10 adult prisoners (57%) have literacy levels below those expected of an 11-year-old. According to a new joint report by Ofsted and HM Inspectorate of Prisons, those prisoners with ‘the greatest need generally received the least support’. ‘It is a serious indictment of the prison system that so many prisoners are no better at reading when they leave prison than when they arrived,’ the report said. ‘The prison service, governors and education providers should take urgent action to address the many concerns we have raised in this report.’
‘At a cost to the taxpayer of around £45,000 each year, it is astonishing that prisoners can serve their sentence without being taught to read or to improve their reading skills,’ wrote the chief inspector, Charlie Taylor. ‘Yet this is the depressing finding… . 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.’ The report notes that ‘little progress’ has been made in the priority of education since the Coates Review of 2016.
The existing reading education, described as ‘minimal at best’, was increasingly hindered by the lockdown. As one teacher stated, learning to read requires face-to-face teaching: ‘You can’t teach phonics through a cell door.’ Although prisons often provided education packs to be completed in a prisoner’s cell, these demanded some reading ability and were ‘far too difficult’ for some to use.
The need to improve the literacy of prisoners had been ‘largely overlooked’ and, in most prisons, fewer than 30 prisoners are enrolled in any form of English education. Whilst the report highlights that many prisoners would benefit from a distinct reading curriculum, the core education does not currently offer this. As a result of a lack of reading skills, prisoners’ ability to navigate life after prisons is limited. The report describes that prisoners without employment-related skills are more unlikely to be able to access opportunities for rehabilitation upon release.
This is because the majority of prisoners are enrolled in a Level 1 Qualification designed to help them access work-based opportunities. However, it was ‘unsuitable’ for many as it requires prior literacy. Prison staff observed that up to 50% of the prison population could not read well enough to take part in functional skills courses at Level 1 or above. Reinforced by the lack of subject knowledge seen from teaching staff, appropriate space and time, many prisoners were not simply given the opportunity to develop their reading skills.
The lack of adequate reading education means that current support heavily relies on voluntary organisations such as the Shannon Trust, which trains prisoners to mentor fellow prisoners who are learning to read. Whilst there has been success with this programme, it is not integrated with the English curriculum at any level. It is also not commissioned by the HMPPS, so it has only been possible due to use of limiting funding by prison leaders.
When the programme could take place, it was ‘only possible’ in the limited time out of cells; at the time of observations for the report, this was as little as an hour. One prisoner observed that ‘on association you’re grabbing lunch, you’ve got to clean your cell, do laundry, shower, have a little walk around, any paperwork. In an hour and 45 minutes’. As it was “simply not a priority” for wing staff, there was “very little evidence” of mentors being able to deliver the programme effectively.