Failing to teach prisoners to read is ‘huge missed opportunity’

Without the ability to read, released prisoners will find it harder to make a successful return to society.

The joint report on prison education, published today, highlights the barriers preventing prisoners from receiving the support they need to learn how to read or improve their reading skills. It finds the reading education on offer in many of the prisons visited by the inspectorates was minimal at best.

The inspectorates found that leaders’ focus was on enrolling prisoners on courses aimed at gaining qualifications, even though up to 50% of the prisoner population could not read well enough to take part. As a result, prisoners who need the most support with education are largely overlooked.

The report finds that, in most prisons, the curriculum is not focused on reading but on practising for exams. Prisoners are not encouraged to enjoy reading, to apply their reading skills across their life, or to read whole books. Many staff did not know how to teach reading. This lack of adequate reading education means that quality support has been left to voluntary organisations or enthusiastic staff members.

In addition, prisons do not have systems in place to identify prisoners’ reading needs or track their progress. In most of the prisons visited for the research, routine phonics screening assessments were not being used to identify the gaps in prisoners’ knowledge and skills, and information on prisoners’ learning was not routinely shared with other prisons.

Today’s report also notes the benefits of prison libraries and how they can encourage prisoners to read. Unfortunately, the use of libraries continues to be severely limited due to practical constraints, such as staff shortages and time clashes with prisoners’ working hours or other education sessions.

In light of the findings, Ofsted and HMI Prisons are calling for reading education to be offered as a distinct part of the prison education programme. Governors should lead an approach to get prisoners reading for “pleasure, purpose and rehabilitation”. This needs an ambitious strategy to improve prisoners’ reading skills, the use of prison libraries and better systems to assess, monitor and share information on prisoners’ reading ability and progress.

Ofsted Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman said:

This research shines a light on the reading education that prisoners are getting, or in most cases, the lack of it. There are some serious systemic challenges, as well as plenty of poor practice. Little progress has been made in the priority of education since the Coates Review in 2016. I want Ofsted, with the prison service and wider government leaders, to be part of the solution to this enormous and enduring problem.

HMI Prisons Chief Inspector, Charlie Taylor said:

The failure to teach prisoners to read or to extend the literacy of poor readers is a huge missed opportunity. 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.

Ofsted and HMIP have long been concerned about the standards of education in prisons and particularly by the number of prisoners who are unable to read. Last September, the inspectorates committed to carrying out a year-long review of prison education, which included this research into reading in prisons.

For today’s report, inspectors carried out 6 research visits to prisons and conducted deep dives into reading, which included observing English classes. Inspectors also interviewed leaders, teachers and prisoners engaged in education, visited the prison library and reviewed curriculum plans and assessment data.

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