Too little attention is being paid to the evidence of a strong link between low literacy levels and offending. American studies consistently show that up to 70 per cent of prison inmates have such poor basic skills that they are unable to write a brief letter explaining a billing mistake or interpret a bar graph. In Wales, six in 10 people in prison are functionally illiterate and innumerate, says the National Literacy Trust.
Estyn, the inspection agency, in its recent report, The quality of education and training for young people under the youth justice system, has found that among the 1,747 supervised youth offenders in Wales, most have poor basic skills and behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. Many of them demand our sympathy not just our censure, since 50 per cent have been in council care at some point, a third have mental health problems, and one in three girls and one in four boys have suffered violence at home.
Generally they cannot manage their behaviour and need much targeted help to achieve the same educational levels as non-offenders.
Yet Estyn's most damning finding is that 37 per cent of youth offenders (aged 10-19) supervised in the community, receive less than the recommended 25 hours' education a week, and 30 per cent receive no education or training at all. Among 16 to 19-year-olds, that proportion is nearly half.
That the Youth Justice Board, the Assembly government and LEAs have collected no data to show what these young people have achieved suggests the issue is being overlooked. Labour has been quick to boast of the 17,000 more prison places it has created in England and Wales. But this is also a measure of the failure to ensure education reaches those whom schools so often exclude. Estyn's report is a wake-up call that should be heeded.