As a former Deputy Head and class teacher and of course now as a writer, I am supporting the Evening Standard’s Campaign “GET LONDON READING” because being able to read empowers children and adults alike and gives people confidence, self esteem and a key life skill.
Here is an uplifting article from last week’s Evening Standard.
“For 20 years, Lenny has been in and out of prison. This 41-year-old Londoner has graced the cells of Dartmoor, Wandsworth, Elmley and Exeter – and is now locked up in HMP Pentonville, the category B prison in Holloway where he is seven months into a 28-month sentence for attempted burglary.
He has never broken the cycle of re-offending. He has also never learned to read. Now, for the first time, Lenny is learning his alphabet. And the prison service believe it will finally break the spell of his recidivism.
Lenny’s aims are simple. “I want to be able to fill out forms like job applications, driver’s licence, passport,” he says. “I have never had a passport or been on a plane.
“I want to be able to read the stations on the London Underground without having to ask other people where I am and have them look at me like I’m dumb. Reading will make me more independent and allow me to take control of my destiny.”
Half of the prison population cannot read.
The Evening Standard’s Get London Reading campaign is fighting to improve literacy rates in the capital. This newspaper wants every child to leave primary school with the ability to read properly. But we also want to show that the problem is endemic among adults – and that the illiteracy crisis needs to be tackled in prisons and businesses, as well as schools.
In the Dickensian G-wing that is home to 1,200 convicted men, Lenny is doing the work he should have been taught at school.
Alongside him perches Daniel, 25, a fellow prisoner, who brandishes a worksheet and prompts Lenny to read the words on the page out loud. Lenny points at a line with the letter “e” repeated several times: “Eh,” he says tentatively, looking up to check with Daniel that he has got it right.
He sounds out the other letters on the page – s, o, b – before Daniel gets him to blend them together. “Sss-o-buh,” Lenny reads, running the sounds into each other to triumphantly read the word “sob”.
The sight of a fully grown man learning his alphabet like a child of four is shocking to witness. You simply do not expect that any English-born man of sound mind can be this undeveloped. But according to Pentonville’s head librarian Mona Banerjee, Lenny is far from an isolated case.
“I would say that 80 per cent of prisoners here have very low levels of literacy, with many unable to read at all,” she said. “It’s very hard for adults to learn to read – much harder than for children.”
Lenny’s story illustrates the personal and societal cost of failing to tackle the literacy crisis that we reported on when we began the Standard’s Get London Reading campaign three months ago.
We asked our readers to give generously, and they did, and so far we have raised £175,000 for our partner charity Volunteer Reading Help, enough to fund 350 volunteers to help 1,050 disadvantaged children to read and make sure they do not wind up illiterate, unemployable and a burden to society like Lenny and his cell-mates.
Lenny says he never learned to read because he had no adult to sit with him, either at home or in school, to make sure that he picked up the habit. “My mother left my father when I was two years old and my dad, a lorry driver, couldn’t cope, so I was put into a care home in Dagenham at age five,” he said.
“They sent me to a primary school in Essex but I refused to go, so they educated me on the premises. They tried to teach me to read and write, but I weren’t bothered. Maybe I was dyslexic, but I found reading hard and I hated it with a passion because it made me feel useless. Later I never told no one that I couldn’t read. I was too embarrassed to talk about it.”
This, he says, is the first time in his life that he is learning to read. So why now? He smiles sheepishly. “A girl I know started writing to me and I want to be able to read her letters for myself. Sometimes I get letters that are intimate-like and I have to ask other prisoners to read them for me, and I burn up inside.
“I am lucky because I have learned to trust Daniel, but it’s not ideal to be dependent so much. I can’t even read the prison menu. I don’t like to show I can’t read, so I just say, ‘I’ll have a number two sandwich’ and eat whatever it is.”
Pentonville has recently introduced a peer-led literacy scheme called Toe By Toe, run by the Shannon Trust, a group that operates in 160 prisons nationwide and is helping 6,000 prisoners like Lenny to learn to read.
The programme costs the prison service practically nothing: Shannon Trust provides the manuals and resources free of charge, and they send teams of volunteers into each prison to recruit and train mentors from among the prisoners themselves. The idea is that prisoners who can read teach other prisoners who can’t.
Daniel, who passed A-levels but is doing three-and-a-half years for assault, is one of 30 Pentonville prisoners who have agreed to become reading mentors.
“After school I got a job stacking shelves in a supermarket, but I fell in with a bad crowd and I got into gang stuff which I now regret,” he says.
“This is my first time inside. A lot of people come to prison and do nothing, but by teaching other prisoners to read, I feel like I’m giving back. It makes me feel good to be contributing to society in my own small way.”
So far Daniel has mentored three fellow prisoners, but one dropped out and a second was transferred to another prison. Lenny is his only charge who has stuck with the programme. “I work with Lenny three times a week for 20 minutes each session,” says Daniel.
“At first Lenny had no confidence or self-esteem. He has a long way to go, but I have watched him get more confident with every session.”
A senior figure at Pentonville says the Shannon Trust scheme works well precisely because it is peer-led. “It takes a lot of bottle for hardened prisoners to ask for help, but it’s easier for them when it’s from someone they trust,” he adds.
“Some of these guys won’t take formal education classes because they’re afraid to look stupid in front of the class, but here they learn at their pace and they can do it in their cell, the library, the gym, or wherever they feel comfortable.
“We give certificates to prisoners for learning to read and I can’t tell you how many break down in tears and say, ‘That’s the first certificate I’ve ever got.’ For mentors, too, it’s empowering. Often for the first time, these people realise they can contribute positively to somebody else’s life.”
The Government is keen to support the scheme in line with its offender rehabilitation policy to realign prison education to target skills that employers want.
A Government spokesman told the Standard: “We are focusing on getting offenders the vocational skills needed by employers – this includes basic numeracy and literacy. We are determined to make prisons places where people learn skills to build lives beyond crime.”
Lenny is hopeful that learning to read over the next year will broaden his horizons and give him options of gainful employment (other than as a labourer on a building site) when he gets out. “I aim to stick with it so I can live in a different way,” he says.
“If only I’d had a reading mentor like Daniel when I was seven. My life might have been very different.”