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Let's try building hope instead of prison cells

Half of the juveniles arrested during last summer's riots in Britain were educational failures who had not mastered the basics by the age of 11. An official report showed that 48 per cent of the young people arrested by police were unable to read or write properly by the time they left primary school. About the same amount couldn't manage simple sums. Many of the rioters also had special needs and came from deprived backgrounds - a further sign of how their lives had been blighted before they had hardly started.

"Send these thugs to borstal," came the cry from London mayor Boris Johnson, amid other similarly helpful comments.

This is all too reminiscent of life for children in the US, where they are often damned as society's failures at an even younger age. Take the recent comments from Lesley Morrow, former president of the International Reading Association. Some US states, she says, project how many prison cells they will need based on reading tests in the third and fourth grades (equivalent to our Years 4 and 5). While this may seem shocking, it is even more appalling when one finds that the prisoner statistics back up this planning method.

Rates of learning difficulty are spectacularly high among prisoners in the UK. Just over a year ago, the Prison Reform Trust published a major study that showed children with learning difficulties were far more likely to end up in prisons than other children. It concluded that failing to identify and make provision for children's support needs was the most significant factor in determining the likelihood of their going to jail.

"Children with learning disabilities, mental health problems and other impairments make up the majority of people in the youth justice system," said the report's author, Jenny Talbot. "Often they have passed through the education system with those needs unrecognised. We must ensure schools and other children's services are properly equipped to identify and help these children before they come into contact with the youth justice system."

A Channel 4 documentary in 2008 tested inmates at Polmont Young Offenders' Institution in Falkirk. Almost all were being screened for learning difficulties for the first time. Half of them were discovered to have dyslexia. One inmate, Thomas, aged 18, already had four burglary convictions. His education seems to have been a write-off. He was asked to leave five primary schools for bad behaviour and bullying, but his learning difficulties weren't examined, so his dyslexia was undiscovered.

Some of the tough young offenders at Polmont broke down in tears when they discovered that, while they had specific learning difficulties, they were not "thick". Several wondered why they could not have taken such a simple test earlier in their lives.

It is easy to make the case that the great majority of prisoners haven't learned the requisite skills to function in a civilised society. Until we respond to the fact that not every pupil can learn in the same way, at the same speed, in the same classroom, nothing will change.

Identifying learning difficulties

What happens to a young child's motivation when they start believing that they are stupid? In order to protect themselves from the shame, they develop attention-seeking habits. The evidence is stark. The emotional effects are startling. By now, many of these children are being bullied and the feelings of low self-esteem often result in negative ways of dealing with difficult situations. When society fails to recognise children with learning challenges, particularly those from socially deprived backgrounds, they can get caught up in a cycle of frustration, truancy and crime that, eventually, dumps them in prison.

Study after study has come up with the same conclusion. So, a year after the riots, why have we not made the move from looking at the statistics to doing something about them? How do we make sure these children don't slip through the net?

Here's an idea. Children are tested continuously at school to find out what they have learned in English, maths and science. Eventually they are examined in more subjects at GCSE level and above. Why don't we introduce an assessment near the beginning of a child's educational journey - at 7, for example - to find out how they learn, not just what they learn? Perhaps we wouldn't need to build so many prison cells if children with dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Asperger's syndrome or other learning challenges were identified and helped early on. The cost of this must surely be less than the cost of incarceration, not to mention the cost in wasted lives.

Early screening would help those parents who suspect their child may have a learning challenge, but are put off by the expense or difficulty of having them assessed. Dyslexia Action says an assessment by an educational psychologist costs #163;500. For poorer families that is prohibitive. Applying for a statutory assessment is difficult and they are often refused.

This problem is perhaps best summed up by Paul Bates from the British Dyslexia Association. "Our prisons are full of dyslexic people from poorer backgrounds who were not diagnosed and fell into bad company after struggling at school. There is a saying that has an unfortunate ring of truth: 'If you are poor you are stupid; if you are middle class you are dyslexic.'"

That, my friends, is the real crime.

Nicky Cox is editor of First News and First News TV.

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