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Dyslexia (Prisons)

Volume 553: debated on Wednesday 21 November 2012

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to raise this important issue. I am doing so because of a whirlwind or, as some might say, a force of nature, who entered one of my constituency surgeries earlier this year—my constituent, Jackie Hewitt-Main. She came to tell me about a project she had undertaken in Chelmsford prison, “Dyslexia Behind Bars”.

During that project, she assessed more than 2,000 offenders for special educational needs, and attempted to work with them to help them understand their learning difficulties and to succeed where the education system had so far failed them. The effect on the re-offending rates of the inmates who took part is truly astounding, and I want to bring that to the full attention of the House and the Government. I believe that Jackie’s work gives an invaluable insight into how we can break down the barriers that prevent offenders from becoming safe and productive members of their community, once they have repaid their debt to society.

I will explain Jackie’s project and her findings later, but first I want to analyse the extent of the special learning needs among our national inmate population. The sad truth is that no one is at all sure how many people in our prisons actually suffer from dyslexia or other learning difficulties. In most cases, the information accompanying people into prison is unlikely to show whether learning difficulties or learning disabilities have been identified.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On collation, is she saying that the Government should collate information on offenders with dyslexia who go to prison?

There is good reason why that information should be collated nationally. I am aware that the Government are moving to a system of payment by results, under which market mechanisms might pick up such issues and ensure that we address them properly.

On that point about payment by results, does my hon. Friend agree that when an offender enters prison and has a health needs assessment looking at speech and language communication, a dyslexia assessment should be undertaken at the same time?

I absolutely do, and given what I will be saying, I hope that many others will agree with my hon. Friend and me about that.

According to the Prison Reform Trust report “No One Knows”, fully half the offenders in British prisons have problems with basic literary skills. It notes:

“The most consistent information about the number of offenders with learning difficulties or learning disabilities is that no one agrees on how many exist.”

With regard to dyslexia, for example, estimates of prevalence among offenders range from 4% to 56%. However, the general average in prison-based studies is about 30%, although rates of serious deficit in literacy and numeracy generally reach up to about 60%. According to Ministry of Justice figures published earlier this month, we currently have more than 86,000 prisoners, so we can estimate that about 26,000 offenders in UK prisons suffer from some form of dyslexia, but we do not know for certain.

I was surprised and disappointed to learn that, historically, the Government have kept no data whatever centrally on the numbers or percentage of the prison population who have special educational needs, such as dyslexia, or even on how many are illiterate. I was surprised and disappointed because the two main aims of our penal system are to punish effectively and to rehabilitate offenders. “The Oxford Dictionary of Law”—my learned colleague, my hon. Friend, will know more about it than I do—defines rehabilitation as:

“Treatment aimed at improving an offender’s character or behaviour (including education, counselling, employment, training, etc.) that is undertaken with the goal of reintegrating the offender into society.”

All Members would agree that one of the most basic necessities effectively to integrate into our modern society is the basic ability to read and write.

With that in mind, I find it hard to see how the Government can allocate and target rehabilitation resources, or commission them effectively, if those data are not collected. Similarly, the Government cannot properly analyse any causal link between the lack of basic literacy and offender behaviour, or assess how far educational failure or the failure to pick up dyslexia in schools leads to offender behaviour in later life.

On literacy and dyslexia, does my hon. Friend agree that prisoners’ literacy skills are lower than average, which reflects their social background, and that greater emphasis must therefore be placed on that?

There should be a great deal more scrutiny on all factors, because there are others. In addition to literacy problems, there is a huge number of social factors, as well as the fact that many members of the prison population have had head injuries or personality disorders.

If we are to drill down, deal with our re-offending rates and our prison populations and, ultimately, achieve what we want by keeping our streets safer, all those factors need proper consideration. We always want to hear that people have been locked up and put away, so that they cannot be on the streets to offend, but they come out again and if we do not stem the tide, we will not address the problem. The issue is not new. For many decades, various social commentators have explained that there is a link between educational attainment and the propensity to commit crime. That only underlines my dismay that we are not doing more, and do not have a proper audit.

As I have said, one key advantage of having payment by results for rehabilitating offenders is that, through the introduction of market mechanisms, organisations—whether third sector or charitable ones—will put greater emphasis on identifying the causes of educational failure in our prisons and ensure that such factors are brought to bear on rehabilitation, whereas under previous Governments, we had one-size-fits-all solutions, particularly for education and training in prisons.

I speak as a dyslexic myself. That is why, when my constituent came into my surgery, everything she told me rang a bell and struck a chord. She came to the right Member of Parliament, because I was extremely interested. I know exactly how embarrassing and frustrating it can be to work very hard in school on a piece of work—coming up with all sorts of fantastic ideas and arguments—only for the teacher to hand it back with red marks all over it because of poor spelling or grammar. That is soul-destroying, actually. I also know what it is like to be told that I am stupid or lazy, or both. It does not take very long for someone in that situation to feel that they cannot trust their own judgment about themselves or about their peers and others around them.

Even worse, such people—perhaps to save face or from confusion and frustration—find it easy to begin to act up to the very labels they are given. Young men in particular often become difficult and disruptive, and that can lead them down a nasty and dangerous path from which it is hard to turn back. I was lucky enough to be diagnosed with dyslexia before I sat my A-levels, but, in fact, a large number of people with dyslexia have always slipped through the net of our education system. For those who leave school hampered by their dyslexia to the extent that they still cannot properly read and write, the frustration and embarrassment they felt in the classroom too often becomes a part of their daily life.

Many dyslexics, if not most, are very good at creating coping strategies and at adapting their day-to-day life to avoid situations in which they are hampered by their dyslexia. Certainly, the vast majority of them never become criminals; I have become a Member of Parliament—I am well aware that many members of the public think that the two are very similar. It is also true that a significant number of dyslexics try to avoid altogether any situations in which they have to read or write. If that aversion to reading and writing is severe enough to make it daunting even to fill in a simple form, they are really lost. Basic literacy is essential for interacting with the rest of society, while illiteracy can be a source of immense frustration and impoverishment and, of course, a factor in crime.

I will talk about the detailed findings of Jackie’s report in a moment, but one fascinating insight that she discovered was that a number of the dyslexic prisoners whom she interviewed were locked up for offences relating directly to their aversion to reading and writing, and specifically to form filling. She found that 10% of dyslexic offenders were serving sentences that were related to strings of driving offences involving driving without a proper licence or insurance. When Jackie asked them why they were not properly licensed, she found that most either could not pass the theory test or simply had not bothered trying because they knew that they would fail. If it is difficult to get through life without reading and writing, it is also quite difficult to get through life without driving a car.

At the moment, education providers use a hidden disabilities questionnaire, which has been developed by Dyslexia Action, to test anyone who shows signs of having a learning difficulty and/or disability. Does my hon. Friend think that test is working?

The evidence from the insightful review written by my constituent, who is a dyslexic herself, seems to show that it is not working. We are not picking up people and, more to the point, we do not know how to reach them and treat them when we do pick them up.

The examples that I have given show not only how important it is to identify dyslexia in prison but why we should improve dyslexia screening provision throughout the education system, but that is a debate for another day and another Minister. I seriously believe that a greater focus on dyslexia will lead to a fall in reoffending rates and that the report from the “Dyslexia Behind Bars” project provides enough evidence and insight for the Government to look at the matter more seriously.

The project took place in Chelmsford prison and, on first glance, its methodology seemed simple—first, to assess the level of illiteracy and special educational needs related to dyslexia in the prison and secondly, to set up a stage-by-stage, one-on-one mentoring scheme among the offenders using Jackie’s teaching tools and methods to teach them outside the traditional classroom setting.

Jackie began work with 20 prisoners with exceptionally low literacy levels. They were generally prisoners who would never have engaged with the prison education service because they saw it as the same pen-and-paper classroom experience that they had previously hated and been failed by, which is why the approach of Jackie, a fellow dyslexic who was undiagnosed until her 40s, was so different. I can entirely identify with the relief simply of being diagnosed dyslexic, let alone being diagnosed by a fellow dyslexic who has overcome the condition. It is a huge opportunity for someone to reappraise how they view themselves and to give them an incentive to try again.

The prisoners who had been taught to read and write by Jackie offered to share their experiences with other prisoners. Literate prisoners also came forward, wanting to learn how to teach and mentor greater numbers of inmates. Jackie trained 40 of them to support fellow prisoners through the project. In that way, her unique, multi-sensory and original teaching and mentoring programme spread to all wings of the prison. More than 200 prisoners were individually taught and supported over the first part of the project by Jackie and her trained mentors, but that figure quickly grew as the project developed and spread. A further 70 prisoners were successfully helped by mentors who transferred to Wayland prison to extend the reach of the project to another part of the prison estate.

Fifty male prisoners went through learning workshops with Jackie. Their literacy levels were at the lowest pre-school level, and they needed to develop early learning and life skills. They discovered that they had a range of strengths which they could build on to develop their learning and to gain self-esteem. They were all helped to create their own highly individual learning plans to understand how to manage their own life, attitudes and behaviours.

Overall, 53% of the 2,029 offenders interviewed at Chelmsford during the project were diagnosed with dyslexia, which is a huge statistic. When they came out of prison, the great majority of them were either working or in education. Within weeks, several prisoners with the literacy skills of an average four-year-old had learned enough to write their first letters home and to read the letters that they received back.

A testimonial from Prisoner J said:

“Jackie has shown me things that no one else has ever been able to do before: reading, writing and sums. I have learnt more in 8 weeks than in all 41 years of my life.”

Jackie and the mentors helped prisoners to learn how to read and fill in forms, to take and pass the driving theory test and to take and pass the building site construction skills test, which meant that they could legally work in construction. That helped to give a sense of optimism and direction to prisoners in preparation for their release.

The project also transformed the prison as a whole—I am sure that the Minister would like to know that. Prison officers commented on how much calmer even the most violent prisoners became as their self-esteem rose along with their progress, resulting in a calmer and happier atmosphere across the whole prison. In the two years, prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-staff assaults fell dramatically—the figures really are quite dramatic—which prison officers have attributed to the “Dyslexia Behind Bars” project, although, unfortunately, they rose after the project ended.

All prisoners involved in the project improved their literacy skills to a level advanced enough to extend their choices of work and leisure activities and prepare more effectively for their lives outside. Of the 17 prisoners in Jackie’s first two groups who were released four years ago, only one has reoffended. That represents a 5.9% proven reoffending rate within four years, compared with the national rate of 55% within two years, or 68% within five years. Clearly, that sample is too small to be statistically reliable. However, it is a useful indicator that shows that the reoffending rate of the project participants is less than a tenth of the national average. An example of that reduction in recidivism is the case of three serial offenders who had each been in and out of prison more than 40 times—none of them has reoffended since their release four years ago.

Of the first 17 prisoners to be released, four are employed in trades, two in building, one a fork-lift driver and one a film producer; two are employed by charities, one teaching disabled people the skills to get into work and one mentoring young offenders; two are voluntary workers, one mentoring adults with learning difficulties and one supporting men on probation; two have started their own businesses; five are currently unemployed; one is at a top university doing an engineering degree; and just one went back into prison.

Moreover, of the first 40 offenders to become mentors, 10 were also trained in PTLLS—preparing to teach in the lifelong learning sector—qualifications. All 10 finished the course and passed with those qualifications. Chelmsford prison has now received many personal requests to transfer, as prisoners and their families hear on the grapevine of the success of the project.

I should like to extend my thanks to the Minister. I wrote to him on this matter earlier this month and received an extremely helpful letter and an offer to meet me and Jackie, for which I am grateful. Moreover, I also welcome the announcement yesterday by the Secretary of State for Justice that he will be reviewing the educational approach taken in the youth custody estate, where we are currently detaining about 1,800 young people, with a 70% likelihood of reoffending. It seems highly likely that among that cohort, there will also be a large proportion with undetected learning needs. There is an opportunity to use an innovative method of reaching and teaching them before they are released back into society. I am quite certain that that will dramatically reduce their reoffending figures.

Historically, education in prison has not been held in high regard by the public as an effective tool to rehabilitate offenders—a fact that was mentioned in an Education and Skills Committee report in 2005. Sadly, I do not believe that that perception has changed in the minds of the public today. The public does not have much confidence or belief in the educational work of the prisons and their ability to rehabilitate. The first role of our prison system should always be to punish offenders and so act as an effective deterrent to reoffending. My aim is not to raise the plight of dyslexics or in any way to excuse any form of offending behaviour but to highlight a way in which we can drastically reduce reoffending rates and ultimately keep our streets safer for the British public.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) on securing this debate on a very important subject. I am grateful to her, too, for introducing me to the work of her constituent, Jackie Hewitt-Main. I look forward to meeting her and my hon. Friend on 5 December to discuss this matter further.

It is clear that Ms Hewitt-Main’s project, “Dyslexia Behind Bars” contains some interesting approaches to a substantial problem. Using a multi-sensory and mentoring approach, she has offered a great deal to the inmates of Chelmsford prison, and there is a great deal there that we will wish to explore. As far as I know, this work has not yet been assessed or reviewed by an independent organisation and although its initial results are promising, further work will be necessary to ensure that they are as good as they appear to be. It seems sensible to explore with my hon. Friend the ways in which we can change things to improve what is on offer.

It is also worth saying that the National Offender Management Service is considering a review of the evidence on effective working with offenders with learning difficulties and disabilities, and I will come back to what is already being done in a moment.

The particular areas of Ms Hewitt-Main’s work that my hon. Friend highlighted, and that are particularly interesting in the context of what my hon. Friend said we are doing more generally in the Justice Department, include peer mentoring. I have seen very good examples of peer mentoring in the prison system, with older, more established prisoners assisting younger and newer prisoners in a variety of ways. The work that my hon. Friend described is only one of those ways.

As my hon. Friend also said, teaching and learning in a non-classroom environment are important. We must recognise that the classroom environment did not work for a great many of the prisoners we are talking about at school, and it probably will not work for them in custody either, so we have to find new and imaginative approaches that, as she said, involve the whole prison.

It is also worth noting that, as I understand it, Ms Hewitt-Main’s programme involved some mentoring of people after they leave prison. As my hon. Friend will have picked up from the speech yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice, that is also an area on which we wish to focus.

It may be helpful if I set out some of the work that is already being done, at which we are having another look to ensure that it is being done in the best possible way. Since taking up this post, I have been very keen to ensure that the importance of learning and skills within the prison estate and beyond is high on the agenda. Indeed, my hon. Friend will have noted that the Prime Minister also mentioned learning and skills in his recent speech on offenders.

In particular, of course, the low levels of literacy and numeracy among prisoners as a group should concern us all, not only because of the impact on those individuals and their ability to function in a world where reading and writing are essential skills, but because a lack of sufficient literacy and numeracy skills excludes people from the vast majority of employment opportunities. I am sure, as are many others, that having a job can make a significant impact on reducing reoffending, and that skills such as organisation, communication, teamwork, writing, speaking and listening are necessary to perform effectively in most, if not all, work roles.

Prisoners with dyslexia are, of course, disadvantaged in that respect, not only because dyslexia presents them with particular issues in terms of competence in reading and writing, but because dyslexia is recognised as impairing organisational skills. My hon. Friend obviously has a clear personal perspective on dyslexia and its effects, which has been extremely valuable in the debate.

Of course, engaging with prisoners on learning and skills can be difficult, as my hon. Friend recognised. Some prisoners may have had negative experiences in their education and even been excluded, and consequently they see little value in education. Statistics that I have seen recently suggest that nearly half of prisoners identified themselves as having left education with no qualifications at all. Dyslexia magnifies that problem. It can be very difficult to recognise and is often masked. Not all schools will have had the specialist provision to support children and young people who have this difficulty.

Since reading and writing are “gateway” skills that enable children and young people to engage confidently with their wider educational experience, as well as in many basic social relationships, poor educational experiences can create reluctant learners. The experience of being excluded from positive experiences of learning to read, write and communicate more widely remains with many prisoners into adulthood. That presents an additional challenge in custody, where engaging with reluctant learners can be particularly difficult if memories of the classroom act as a barrier to taking the opportunities that education can provide.

Dyslexia is only one condition in a range of learning difficulties and disabilities that prisoners may present with, and that require specialist and systematic approaches. We need to provide as much support as we can to prisoners with LDDs, to improve their chances in the workplace as well as their confidence, self-esteem and social skills. Without dedicated input, the impact of much learning support in reading and writing may be reduced or lost.

The NOMS learning disabilities and difficulties working group exists to oversee the national implementation of an LDD screening process for prisoners, and to develop a broader LDD strategy across prisons. Apart from various officials from NOMS, membership of the group includes officials from the Department of Health, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Prison Reform Trust. I welcome, as I am sure my hon. Friend does, the contribution made by the group, as these issues can be resolved only by partners across Government and the voluntary sector working together. The group is involved in the development of NOMS guidance for better outcomes for offenders with LDDs. It is also developing guidance on reasonable adjustments for prisoners with LDDs, to ensure that they are integrated into the prison community and that they have the best opportunity to participate in activities that support their rehabilitation. Further commitments for the current year include improving staff awareness, as well as prisoner and peer training.

Returning to a point that my hon. Friend made about the crucial importance of our knowing how many people in prison have dyslexia and other learning disabilities, a learning disability screening questionnaire has been piloted on three sites, and NOMS is considering whether it should be used across the prison estate. The Youth Justice Board is using a similar tool—the comprehensive health assessment tool—with young offenders. That will go some way towards addressing the point that she raised and on which my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) focused: identifying the number of people we are dealing with.

My hon. Friend and also mentioned the Skills Funding Agency and its hidden disabilities screening tool, which of course identifies issues wider than LDDs. It has been used by all the SFA’s custodial Offender Learning and Skills Service providers since August 2009. Our aim is that this tool will eventually be adopted and used by all OLASS providers, both in custody and in the community, and ultimately by all mainstream providers.

We are also making radical changes to the way that learning and skills are delivered in prisons, which will encompass the support that we want to be made available to all prisoners with LDDs. As part of that radical programme of change, we have published a document that my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point may have seen—if she has not seen it, I commend it to her—called “Making prisons work: skills for rehabilitation”. That is the new offender learning strategy, which was published jointly with BIS. The strategy recognised that improving prisoners’ literacy skills was central to rehabilitation, as we have discussed today, and we are taking steps to ensure the implementation of the report’s recommendations.

To give an idea of the scale of the problem that literacy and numeracy difficulties present in prisons, in the academic year 2010-11 almost 30% of prisoners had such low levels of reading and writing skills that, in order to bring them up to a basic functional level, individual learning aims for literacy and numeracy had to be set for them. Overall, 65% of prisoners enrolled on literacy and numeracy programmes were successful in achieving the literacy and numeracy functional skills goals that had been set as part of their individual learning plans. For some, it meant learning to read and write, while for others it meant improving their basic literacy and numeracy so that they could operate with more confidence and competence.

The revised Offender Learning and Skills Service, which is OLASS 4, was implemented as a result of the “Making prisons work” strategy, and it will make additional provision against assessed need. OLASS 4 requires education providers to identify the support needs of offenders with LDDs or special educational needs through a learning difficulty assessment, or LDA. Requirements identified through the assessment should be addressed through personalised, customised programmes delivered by specialist qualified staff. My hon. Friend will recognise the importance of that approach, because not all offenders have identical needs. OLASS 4 providers understand, and are able to deliver, the specific and systematic approaches to learning that are required by prisoners with such difficulties.

Crucially, however, through OLASS 4 and the work that we are doing more widely with other Departments, we are more strongly linking skills to employment, and I believe that there is still more work to do in that regard. Arrangements are also in place to allow OLASS 4 providers to draw together funding to support prisoners with LDDs, through a specific adult learning support allocation that is designed to match the support that mainstream learners in colleges or training organisations receive. A budget for additional learning support of £7.1 million is available to the OLASS 4 providers, to enable the introduction of specific assessment processes to identify offenders with LDD needs and to provide those offenders with the expert teaching and support that they require.

In addition, my hon. Friend may be aware of the work of the Shannon Trust’s “Toe by Toe” reading scheme, which is also available in prisons. Again, this scheme uses peer mentors, supported by volunteers, teaching staff and prison officers, and it is based on best practice developed through teachers’ experiences of enabling children with dyslexia to read. That is enormously beneficial to many offenders.

In conclusion, I welcome today’s debate, and I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. I assure her that, although we believe that much good work is being done already, there is still a great deal more to do, and we are certainly open to new and good ideas, including those that I look forward to discussing with her and her constituent.