17 Jul 2020

Literacy in Lockdown - a case study in best practice


What has made ‘Yes We Can Read’ work so well at HMP Winchester? And why is its strength so evident in lockdown? Sam Wilson, Reading Scheme Coordinator at the prison, writes on how this phonics based reading programme is being used successfully to support learners who have previously experienced difficulty learning through traditional approaches.

HMP Winchester

The difficulties faced by prisoners with low literacy levels are well documented, with research indicating that fifty percent of prisoners are effectively illiterate.

Yes We Can Read

HMP Winchester use the 'Yes, We Can Read' Reading scheme, a tried and tested learning resource that, unlike other schemes, is not just peer-to-peer based, but allows for prisoners who prefer anonymity and professional support to have specially trained members of staff work alongside them to support their learning.

HMP Winchester is fortunate to have a forward thinking and insightful Senior Leadership Team, who work tirelessly to ensure that the literacy needs of prisoners are acknowledged and appropriate provision made to meet those needs. When the Ministry of Justice issued guidance on social distancing because of the Coronavirus pandemic, the scheme coordinators, in collaboration with colleagues across all departments, both operational and non-operational, reviewed our delivery model and how this might be adapted in accordance with new guidance on social distancing to ensure that the prisoners who wanted to improve their literacy did not have any undue obstacles in achieving their educational goals.

We paused the reading scheme, advising mentors and learners that we would be reviewing how we could safely and effectively deliver the same high quality level of provision. Both learners and mentors were very understanding and supportive of this decision. We ensured that all parties were kept informed and updated during the review, and made time to listen to the concerns and comments of everyone to safeguard and protect those involved.

By adapting our meeting spaces, and making good use of the large open space of the chapel, we were able to develop a new, socially distanced version of our Mentor Training package.

We looked at the number of learners we had and where they were located within the prison. If they were housed with another prisoner with whom they had a positive relationship and that prisoner had the appropriate skills, we looked at training their cell-mate to be a Reading Mentor for them, as this posed no issues with social distancing when working through the scheme. However, while this was an option for some learners, this didn't work for others, such as High Risk prisoners in single cells.

We also spoke with our Reading Mentors, both prisoners and staff, and canvassed their views on whether, in the current circumstances, they were happy to continue in their role. Some asked if they could stand down as Reading Mentors for the time being, whilst others were happy to continue, on the basis that all the relevant safety precautions were in place.  

We then began our new model of delivery and trained new Reading Mentors and paired Mentors and Learners who could safely work together. 

Mentor Feedback

We spoke with some of our Mentors. Here is a sample of the feedback we received:

I was a Reading Mentor here before and then was released from prison but recalled. I saw Sam, Reading Scheme Coordinator, when he was on the wing and asked him if I could start again, helping people to learn to read. 

I went to the chapel and we did some refresher training, we sat far apart to make sure we were safe but it was easy because we both worked from the same book and when we went through it together it soon came back to me. 

I’m not padded up with the person I helping learn to read, he’s in a single cell, so we go across to the chapel a couple of times a week and work together at a safe distance through the Yes, We Can Read Book. It’s really good and nice to be off the wing and no noise and people to keep bothering you while you’re trying to do it. 

I really like doing it this way, I think we should do it like this even we get back to normal.

P, Prisoner Reading Mentor.

I’m a member of staff and also a 'Yes, We Can Read' Reading Mentor. I love helping the men learn to read and I have my manager’s agreement to spend twenty minutes three times a week with a Learner. We find a safe space where we can socially distance and work through the book together. It’s so rewarding, it’s amazing to see the men make progress so quickly - I think they surprise themselves! 

It’s great because I feel so valued in this role. I was asked if I wanted to continue in my role, what could be done to support me if I did and given every option to support me. 

I do feel safe and supported and think that the Reading Scheme makes such a difference to the men who engage. I look forward to when all this is over and we can crack on with this as we did before! 

R, Staff Reading Mentor 

Learner Feedback

As with our Reading Mentors, we canvassed the views of our Learners. Here is a sample response:

I was learning to read when this all started with coronavirus and we had to stop for a while. After a while they said my pad-mate could be my mentor if I wanted, I get on well with him so said yes straight away! 

He did the training and got his book and then came back and we started working together. It was funny at first because he’d not done it before and I was used to my old Mentor but it was good. 

When I first came in I could read a little bit but didn’t know most of the words on the canteen sheet and had to get people to read that to me and my letters. Now I can read a lot more and I don’t have to pay out for people to read my things to me! 

It’s good having my pad-mate as my Mentor because he makes me do it even when I’m not always in the mood, I do like it though! 

R, Learner

Summary

The 'Yes We Can Read' reading scheme continues successfully at HMP Winchester thanks to both the support of the Governors, Senior Leadership Team, Head of Learning and Skills, and to the flexibility and commitment of the prisoners at this difficult time.

Despite the pandemic restrictions in place, the prisoners at HMP Winchester continue to learn and achieve and do so with enthusiasm. We look forward to celebrating their success just as soon as we are able to. 

Sam Wilson, Reading Scheme Coordinator, HMP Winchester

Find out more about 'Yes We Can Read'


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