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8th September 2015

Helping offenders turn a new page

by Beverley Hypolite, Work Solutions tutor and education consultant

INTERNATIONAL Literacy Day is an ideal platform to discuss  the benefits that improving literacy can have for the individual concerned and for the wider community in which they live.

The Literacy Trust identifies that in the UK: 25 per cent of young offenders have reading skills below those of the average seven-year-old; 60 per cent of the prison population has difficulties in basic literacy skills; 48 per cent of prisoners are at – or below – the level expected of an 11-year-old in reading; and only one in five prisoners are able to complete a job application form.

These statistics highlight the relationship between criminal behaviour and poor literacy as well as the possible impact on socio-economic factors, such as well-being, aspirations, family life, health, happiness and success.

I work as a tutor and education consultant for the Work Company, which provides education, training and employment in partnership with the Cheshire & Greater Manchester Community Rehabilitation Company (CGM CRC). I have direct one-to-one and small group contact with offenders who are sentenced to CGM CRC’s Intensive Community Order (ICO).

The first thing I notice is that they are more likely to admit that they struggle with numeracy than with literacy. Assessing their basic skills in numeracy first enables me to observe their literacy skills as this has many written questions. Feeding back their results allows me to broach the subject of poor literacy skills, as many are able to answer the questions if they are read aloud.

I am able to gain firsthand knowledge of their school experiences; a high percentage come from backgrounds of school exclusion and Pupil Referral Units. As a result, they were unable to acquire adequate literacy skills and qualifications.

Most would say that by the time they left primary school they were identified as having behavioural issues or learning difficulties and were “switched off” to learning, and also had negative experiences at secondary school which invariably culminated in them getting in trouble and playing truant or “getting into mischief to relieve the boredom”. The challenge is how to re-engage them in learning in order to enable them to feel confident and equipped to engage in education.

One learner who came to me was fantastic with numbers, but when he had to read the numeracy questions he became agitated and aggressive, screwed up the assessment paper and headed for the door cursing. Stopping him from leaving and having a chat was the challenge, but with a brew and a quiet space we discussed what had happened. He was adamant that if I asked him any maths question he could answer it and stated that the test made him feel stupid. We discussed his schooling and his feelings towards learning and he finally admitted that he struggled with his reading and writing because he was always sent out of the classroom due to his behaviour. Throughout our conversation he made statements like ‘I am too thick’, ‘I can’t do it’ and ‘I always thought I was stupid’.

We discussed the way he communicated with his friends through text messages and he showed me some. He wrote a few examples on a piece of paper, which I struggled to read, and we identified that his spelling was made up of phonetic sounds or shortening of words, for example removing vowels and inserting numbers. His sentences were also made by omitting parts of speech. Using these sentences we identified his writing strengths and made a plan to start working on areas he was unsure of, for example, how the sounds are made, such as consonant blends; vowel combinations; and basic punctuation.

Starting his literacy learning at a place he felt comfortable and knowledgeable worked wonders for his confidence and he started re-engaging in learning with honesty. Being able to admit he didn’t understand and having it explained as many times as needed, without judgement, enabled him to look at himself differently; as a learner. He admitted to his girlfriend that he struggles and she wanted to help, so he started asking for homework. Although he always ‘forgot it’; he could prove he had done it because his progress was evident.

One day, during one of our sessions, he asked me about gaining qualifications. He was coming to the end of his order, and we looked for literacy classes in his local area. He enrolled on a works program which supported him into employment, whilst addressing his literacy and moving away from crime.

Literacy is a vehicle to success for many young adult offenders, as evidence shows, without it the prospects of criminal behaviour are quite high. Seeing these young men become more confident about their futures and start to have aspirations is very rewarding.