Learning to read in prison – time to invest in peer led programmes

Ian Merrill
March 29, 2022

This year, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) and Ofsted are reviewing education in prisons. They began with reading; talking to prisoners, leaders, and staff in 6 prisons across the UK. A report on reading education in prisons was released on 22 March.


In the report, Amanda Spielman, Ofsted's Chief Inspector, says “Reading is a fundamental life skill.” There are challenges for anyone who struggles to read, whether they're in prison or living in the wider community. But Amanda Spielman's point is a wider one.


Spielman goes on to reflect how the “lack of access to education maintains inequality and seriously curtails a prisoner's life chances.” She also says “the difference that reading for pleasure can make to a prisoner's quality of life.”


Learning to read can help people in prison turn their lives around. Being able to read means those who are in prison can use their time meaningfully. It can both relieve boredom and bring joy.


According to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), 57% of adult prisoners have literacy levels below that of an 11 year old. For each of those people, the prison routine can be especially difficult to navigate. It means they might struggle with filling in forms, following notices and work instructions, and even choosing from menus.


As the report mentions, they may also be excluded from prison work, or opportunities for rehabilitation. And they may find it hard to stay close to family and friends.


If you have an interest in prison education, the new report is important. It found that:

  • prisons don't give enough priority to improving basic reading skills
  • prison education courses are focussed on qualifications rather than being tailored to the needs of the prisoners
  • much of the available materials aren’t suitable for adults trying to read
  • a lack of meaningful assessments mean those who could benefit from reading help aren't always identified, and when they are, records too often get lost when prisoners move

Along with all of this, many prisoners only have an hour a day out of their cells. This means opportunities to practice reading are limited.


In the 25 years since Shannon Trust was founded, it could be easy to feel downhearted by how many people in prison still need our support.


Shannon Trust was founded in 1997 by Christopher Morgan. He corresponded with a prisoner, Tom Shannon, through a penfriend scheme, and was shocked to learn how many of Tom's fellow prisoners struggled to read.


Christopher Morgan was able to bring his vision for Shannon Trust to life with the help of prison officers and leaders. We have since helped transform thousands of lives, supporting prisoners who can read to teach those who can't.


Although Tom Shannon’s observations are still true today, I believe change can come from the joint report by HMIP and Ofsted.


I've experienced prison leaders, staff, and prisoners cooperating to make Shannon Trust's reading programmes happen. I know our peer to peer approach works, especially for those who couldn't engage in school. Our Turning Pages manuals were developed with adult prisoners in mind, and have been evaluated by Birmingham City University.


Shannon Trust learners and their mentors gain individual growth and experiences that can help them succeed in their future lives. Shorter term learning can also have a positive impact on people's time in prison. It can help to make day to day life easier, build self esteem and offer the small escape of a good book.


This is not to dismiss the challenges. Prison leaders and staff have an enormous amount to deal with, and competing priorities. We’ve seen that the past couple of years of the pandemic has brought unprecedented pressure and disruption. This change is likely to be a constant in the coming years with increased prisoner numbers, plans to build larger prisons, and a proposed new Prison Education Service.


The contribution of the voluntary sector, including Shannon Trust, is noted in the joint report. Although it calls out the practical problems of too little time and space, and a lack of coordination with the formal education teams, the report also speaks of “positive impact” and the supportive, non judgemental relationships between Shannon Trust's learners and mentors.


It seems to me that this is something to build on. If we can allow for regular time and space to support prisoners who need help with their reading, then we can open other doors – to more learning, to life chances, and to the possibility of reading for pleasure.

You can hear more about the review of reading education in prisons in the latest Ofsted Talks podcast.

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