WDP and Shannon Trust’s groundbreaking pilot scheme to make one-to-one peer-led reading support sessions available to WDP clients is a lifeline for those struggling with literacy, says Scott Haines.
Being able to read is something that many of us take for granted. We have likely been doing it from an early age and it’s a skill that we use every day. Just this morning, within an hour of waking up, I’d read the news, checked my emails, scanned through my social media and reviewed some paperwork I needed to sign. Shortly afterwards I plotted a public transport route to visit a WDP drug and alcohol service in Greenwich, where today I will be delivering training to staff and volunteers.
During the training, a comment from one member of the group really got me thinking – ‘It’s difficult to even visualise what it would be like to not be able to read. I can only imagine how horrible that must feel.’ What would life be like if you couldn’t read? How difficult might you find it to complete many of the routine tasks you undertake each day? How would it affect your ability to communicate with others or get access to important information? What type of jobs would you be able to do? How would it make you feel about yourself? Reading is fundamental to so many aspects of our day-to-day lives, and yet struggling with reading is a reality for far too many people.
Shannon Trust is a literacy charity that currently operates in every prison in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. We train prisoners who can read to become mentors and teach those who can’t using a phonics-based programme called Turning Pages (DDN, July/August, page 4), that we designed specifically for working with adults. Over the past 20 years we have helped thousands of people to improve their reading, achieving some fantastic outcomes in the process.
Current stats suggest that around 50 per cent of the UK prison population has a reading level below that of the average 11-year-old. A significant proportion of this number struggle to read anything at all. These numbers are alarming, and we are determined to do what we can to help reduce them through our work inside and outside of prison.
We know that there are lots of reasons why people end up struggling with reading. For some, they had a troubled and disrupted childhood. For others, they didn’t go to school or were excluded. In other cases, people may have undiagnosed problems such as dyslexia or visual impairments, which made the task of reading difficult. It could also be a combination of such factors.
When someone struggles with reading, we know that the impact on their lives can be significant. As well as not being able to do many things, learners regularly tell us about how this has severely damaged their confidence or has been detrimental to their relationships with family. It’s also common to hear about the frustration and resignation that comes with not being able to access opportunities which may help them to move forward positively in their lives, such as employment.
Our data shows that those who take part in one-to-one sessions report improvement in their confidence and self-esteem, and 90 per cent of our learners also go on to access further education and training opportunities.
Despite this issue being fairly common within the prison system, we find that many people are still reluctant to disclose that they struggle with reading (often because of embarrassment and concerns about how others will respond). And even when things are out in the open, it’s also not always the case that people want or will accept support when it’s offered. This is particularly true if the support involves a classroom, where experiences for many in the past may not have been overwhelmingly positive.
However, we find a peer-based approach can be effective. It appeals to those who might be resistant to accessing support, with many preferring to engage if it’s on a one-to-one basis, working with someone that they can trust and where sessions can take place in a safe and confidential space.
Working in prisons remains vital to us, but we also know there exists a significant need for people to access this type of support on the outside. According to the National Literacy Trust around 7.1m people in England – 16.4 per cent of the population – struggle with poor literacy (below Level 1). At Shannon Trust we regularly get approached by community-based services looking for help to support clients or advice to develop their own programmes. Therefore, we are really keen to expand our work beyond prison walls. We think everyone should be offered the chance to access support to improve their reading if and when they need it, no matter where they are. This is why we think our new partnership with WDP is such an exciting and important one.
We are currently setting up peer-based reading programmes in several WDP services, in areas such as Islington and Merton, which we will pilot over the next 18 months. These will be delivered by WDP staff and volunteers like those I met today in Greenwich, who will offer one-to-one support sessions to clients in-house. We will also provide training/guidance to wider staff teams to help them better identify and support clients who may benefit from taking part. We will work collaboratively to share learning, track outcomes and plan ongoing development, the aim being to have a community model which is effective in responding to need and which can be replicated across more services.
Before joining Shannon Trust I’d spent 14 years working in drug and alcohol services. I remembered working with a few clients who I knew struggled with reading and who I’d tried to refer to local classroom-based programmes. Some point blank refused to go. Others said they would attend but did not.
I wonder whether I might have worked with some who struggled with reading but didn’t wish to disclose it? Perhaps I never offered them the chance. If so, might things have been different if I’d had a better understanding of the issue and had been able to offer them access to a peer-based support programme within the service? Would they have been more likely to engage with it? Could this have improved their outcomes? I believe the answer to each of these questions would be yes, and which is why I have no doubt that our pilot will be a great success.