Ipswich MP: 'We must end the learning difficulties to prison pipeline'

Tom Hunt MP

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt. - Credit: House of Commons

This week on the Education Select Committee we were discussing Prison Education and we held an evidence session on Tuesday with the heads of a number of charities responsible for supporting and promoting prison education.

Our witnesses giving evidence were Lisa Capper MBE, the Director of Education and Skills at the social justice charity Nacro; Shereen Lawrence from St Giles Trust, which helps the homeless and prisoners get back on their feet; and Julian Smith, CEO of Bounce Back, which trains up ex-offenders. 

There was much to be said about the technical aspects of running educational programmes for offenders in prisons, however I wanted to better understand some of the issues relating to special educational needs (SEND) and how these are assessed in prison. 

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Data shows that 30% of prisoners have learning difficulties - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

In the evidence session for the Select Committee we heard that data reports that 30% of prisoners have learning difficulties. When I asked around the individual witnesses, there was consensus that this figure is a drastic underestimate given that it relies on self-reporting when an offender comes into prison. 

I believe very strongly that we need to have much more accurate knowledge of what proportion of the prison population has SEND because it will inform two key things with regards to education. 

Firstly, if we have an accurate picture of the numbers of those coming into prison with SEND from early on in their sentence, then we will be able to tailor prison education directly to those offenders throughout their time behind bars. Education in prison is a crucial aspect of the rehabilitation of our prisoners and the goal that when they come out they might contribute to society in more valuable ways than they previously had done. It is therefore very important that we get this right. 

Secondly, and what I believe is of the greatest importance, if we get a more accurate depiction of the levels of SEND amongst the prison population, then we might be more fully aware of the implications of the underfunding of SEND in our education system today. Until we get every person tested, then we won’t know the true scale of the problem and how to move forward.  

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It is well known that there is a significant link between children with learning difficulties who then go on to fall in with our criminal justice system. A study by Prison Reform Trust in 2008 found that people with learning disabilities are seven times more likely to come into contact with the police, five times more likely to be subject to control and restraint, and three times more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression, and spend time in solitary confinement.  

The Prison Reform Trust did acknowledge that these were estimates rather than straight statistics because there is often no system in place to screen, identify, and record whether a prisoner has a learning disability. 

This is exactly the problem which was reiterated by the witnesses on the Education Select Committee and is a problem which I think we urgently need to tackle. Shereen Lawrence acknowledged that if we could assess for SEND early on then we would better understand the need to fund SEND in early years education. 

The National Council for Special Education has explained that there are serious emotional outcomes for the learners who do not have their learning difficulty picked up in early years. They state that ‘schools have an essential role to play in the prevention of behavioural difficulties that may develop as a reaction to learning difficulty. The link between learning difficulties and behaviour difficulties will be firmly established in the primary school years, if appropriate intervention and support is not available.’  

As someone with dyspraxia and dyslexia myself, I know how fortunate I was to have been diagnosed early on at school and get the support I needed to go on and excel in my education. When I was 12 I actually had the reading and writing age of an 8 year old and I myself at that point in my life wasn’t happy with my situation. I was often angry that no one seemed to understand me and couldn’t understand why I was different from my peers and falling behind everyone else. For people who aren’t diagnosed, the fact that their poor school attainment is often attributed to inattention, distractibility, or laziness can negatively reinforce behaviours and ensure these children are left behind. If someone feels that the system is failing them as an individual then it is not surprising that over time they turn against the system; it is not surprising that there is this link. We desperately need to make sure that this doesn’t continue to happen. 

Julian Smith from Bounce Back also agreed that we should aim for proper assessments for SEND but raised the fact that testing in this way would be incredibly resource heavy. However, my argument is that putting in place provision for testing in prisons so that we understand the full extent of the problem might be one of the most socially beneficial measures we could introduce. If we address the scale of the problem and fund SEND in early years, then we might be able to address behavioural problems before they actually arise. The benefit to the taxpayer in pushing down the prison population and in driving some of our most creative thinkers to succeed in our society will be immense. 

When it comes to providing first class support for SEND, while not everything is about money, making sure we have sufficient resources going in at every stage isn’t just the right thing to do at a moral level, but at a societal level as well. Ultimately it is unmet needs which makes it more likely that these people end up in the criminal justice system. It is not just bad for society, but for the exchequer in the long run as well. 

Of course, any offender needs to be punished firmly for what they have done. I don’t believe in soft justice and think that it is important to have a deterrent. But this doesn’t mean we should give up on taking steps to prevent reoffending in future. We can hopefully also make the case for more SEND funding in earlier education – The stakes couldn’t be higher. Get it right and you can utilise the talents of unconventional thinkers which is great for our society. Get it wrong and you end up with more people in the criminal justice system. 

I am very glad that this discussion was had in the Education Select Committee and I hope that in the very near future serious measures will be put into place to assess prisoners for SEND. We need to understand the full scale of this problem so we can end the learning difficulties to prison pipeline once and for all. 

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