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Reading in prisons: Why there are grounds for optimism

Richard Wakelin, regional lot manager (Women’s Estate North Prisons) for Novus, part of the LTE Group

While Ofsted and His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons may have concerns about the progress made in improving reading in prisons, Novus’ Richard Wakelin highlights innovative work to drive up literacy levels among prisoners

“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.

Challenges and Progress: Improving Reading Education in Prisons

Among the prison population, Paula’s experience is depressingly common. One year has passed since a major report on reading in prison was published by Ofsted and His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons 9HMIP).  The follow up to this, The quality of reading education in prisons: one year on, highlights that progress has been made in prisons around reading, but there remains much still to do.  Just last week, HMIP’s annual report again raised several concerns, not least that a shortage of prison officers was still limiting prisoners’ access to libraries and education provision.

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. 

Improving Reading Strategies and Support in the Women’s Estate North Prisons

Ofsted highlighted four key recommendations in the report, judging progress to be slow in all areas.  In the Women’s Estate North, our education teams have worked hard to put in place the recommendations as set out in the report over the past year.  As a trusted national provider of prison education with a wealth of expertise developed through 30 years of supporting the hardest-to-reach learners, Novus has been proactive in this area, supporting our prisons in the Women’s Estate North and collaborating with our partners through a range of high-quality development activities.

Novus and the prison leaders worked collaboratively 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.

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 support being passed to the provision best placed to support them in the prison.

Role of Specialists and Cultural Shift in Prison Education

One part of this support is that of a reading specialist.  Novus started delivering a DPS contract in the last year with a focus on supporting learners across a range of abilities to develop their reading ability.  Having a reading specialist working alongside the existing functional skills tutors, library staff and other agencies who support reading in prisons is 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 support 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”!  Upon entering a prison library recently I was greeted with a wall display of the latest book reviews on the wall – completed by a range of staff, including the governor and prisoners. Reading groups and competitions now take place regularly with the aim to engage and motivate the full spectrum of readers.

Driving up reading standards

As Ofsted have highlighted, there is more to do if we are to driving up reading standards among prisoners. Green shoots of progress have been made in the last year, it’s important that all partners delivering in the prison system now work collaboratively to build on this progress at pace.

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,” she says.  “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.”

By Richard Wakelin, regional lot manager (Women’s Estate North Prisons) for Novus, part of the LTE Group

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