One Page: Reading and maths – building foundations

Ian Merrill
April 12, 2023

Welcome to 'One Page'. In this monthly newsletter, I will talk about the people I have met, and the things I have read or seen relating to Shannon Trust's vision, which is a future where everyone can experience the positive impact of learning. I hope these short pieces will start conversations, generate new ideas, and help our vision become a reality.


Reading and maths – building foundations


When our pilot for the Turning Pages Digital app went live at the end of last year Prisons and Probation Minister, Damian Hinds MP, talked about why support with reading matters.


“Literacy is the key to so many routes away from crime”, he said, “and we know that prisoners engaging in education are significantly less likely to reoffend.” Hinds spoke in connection with our reading app, but I would add basic maths to his message. Both are key foundations for life, whether that’s in work, studying or managing day to day.


We developed the Turning Pages Digital app with our partner Yalla Cooperative. It was our response to the Government’s call for innovative solutions to the literacy challenge in prisons. We know that half of those in prison struggle to read, and it’s similar with basic maths.


Some didn’t have the opportunity to go to school, and for many individual reasons others found it difficult to engage with lessons. It was no different for Duncan: “For me school was hard, and the atmosphere was even worse due to having autism, so learning wasn’t something I did well. I preferred making trouble then being told to do my work. I left school with no qualifications to my name and no plans to change that.”


With the right support, people like Duncan can thrive and have the opportunity to learn in a way that best suits them. With the help of his mentors, Duncan went from not being able to read, to completing the programme, gaining customer service and warehouse safety qualifications, and then training to be a mentor himself.


Shannon Trust has a flexible and informal approach. Our tried and tested study resources help mentors guide learners, at a pace that suits them. A one to one relationship with someone else, who also understands what prison life is like, can make all the difference.


Learning to read is transformative.


If you’re in prison it means you can choose from food menus, follow instructions and forms, and read your own letters from home. It means you can encourage your children, especially if they find school difficult. It boosts wellbeing and self confidence; it proves that change is possible and gives hope if you want a different future. It can also be a springboard for other opportunities.


Many people in prison get a chance to train for, and do, paid work while they are carrying out their sentence. This could be electrical engineering, gardening, catering or carpentry. Normally these jobs require numeracy and literacy skills, so people in prison without those key foundations can miss out.


Being able to earn some money is always a plus, but it’s easy to see other benefits too, such as gaining practical skills, experiencing teamwork, being responsible for turning up when you’re asked to and so on. These are all things that employers in the community value, and while they’re not directly linked to literacy and numeracy, not being able to do prison work can hold you back in showing you’re ready to take up a role back in the community.


Learning to read and do basic maths also opens a door to more learning. We find that 9 out of 10 Shannon Trust learners go on to take up further education in prison. Some people seek accreditation for jobs, and others find that once they start – once they’ve got those key foundations – they have athirst for knowledge that they haven’t had chance to satisfy before. Prison courses help people gain new skills, and qualifications that are recognised by employers, colleges and universities. Distance learning is also available to some people in prison, who want to carry their learning on to another level.


One learner told us: “Before I started Turning Pages books I pretty much couldn’t read at all. I would have to ask for help with any paperwork, menu and canteen. I’m now on the last book and can do almost everything on my own, although I still need a bit of help with some of the paperwork. I have been working in gardens since August 2021 and have just started with the support of my Shannon Trust mentor Level 2 Horticulture course. Without Shannon Trust and the mentors, I wouldn’t have been able to do this or any other courses.”


At Shannon Trust, we believe in rehabilitation, in people’s capacity for change and to build something from new foundations. The Prisons and Probation Minister talked about “routes away from crime”. We know the positive impact that learning to read and do basic maths can have. It can be the way into work, both in prison and in the community, and working, being paid and feeling valued for your contribution, reduces the chances of reoffending. It can help strengthen ties with friends and family, and links to home, with support from loved ones, also reduce the chances of reoffending. It can be the start of a path to more studying, whether for a particular goal or for the sake of learning itself, and studying also can reduce the chances of reoffending.


To me, foundations are just that. It’s not only about getting a job, or studying; it’s what literacy and numeracy can bring to someone’s life and how they feel about themselves, and then the ripple effects on their family and wider community that really matter.


Please get in touch if anything I have written resonates with you; whether you agree, disagree or have a suggestion for how we can improve what we do.

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