Home » Youth Offending » Literacy in the Youth Justice System

Literacy in the Youth Justice System

Today saw the publication of Charlie Taylor’s Youth Justice Review. Cynic that I am, I settled down to read it expecting to find a heap of material for an argumentative blog post. Keeping in mind that I’m writing about education rather than the more contentious devolution of YOTs, I’m happy to announce that I can only summon up a reasonably strong “Yes, but”.

That Reading Thing came out of working with a little school for boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties and my local youth offending team. It was created with the angry teenager in mind – the one who hates school partly because their poor reading prevents them from feeling any sense of belonging there.

So does the report make recommendations that meet the needs of that young person? Yes, (but). Here are some key paragraphs.

10. “…what is undoubtedly important is the quality of the worker who is involved with the child, and the relationship that they strike up.”

Yes. Relationship. Even in education. Especially in literacy for older strugglers.

17. “The children with whom YOTs now work are, in general, those whose offending is a manifestation of a number of things that are going wrong in their lives.”

Yes. We often say that learning to read won’t solve everything for a young person, but not learning to read will make it even more difficult to solve anything in the long term.

29. Many of the children in the youth justice system have had little or no engagement in education. It is common for children in trouble with the law to have had poor school attendance from an early age, and to have begun to play truant as they got older. Many have learning difficulties and lack the basic skills in literacy and numeracy to succeed at school, while many have been permanently or temporarily excluded.

And to paraphrase the rest of that section, we need to:

31. increase our expectations of what these young people can achieve in education and training.

32. be better at embedding education and training in what is offered to young people.

33. have robust accountability for alternative education providers everywhere.

34. make sure excluded children have access to “the right high-quality, bespoke and, where necessary, therapeutic education..”

Yes, yes, yes yes, yes – but there needs to be discussion about the idea that learning to read should precede attempts at classroom based education and what could that look like.

At the recent Youth Justice convention, I met people already imagining how that could work for their young people:

  • a psychiatrist in a YOI who wants a team member trained in That Reading Thing for those young people who just can’t face the classroom
  • a police inspector who has two teams of officers she thinks could deliver literacy an hour a week
  • a head of service with two separate teams of volunteers already in place, some of whom could deliver one-to-one literacy
  • several workers who were looking for a tool they could use as the need crops up in supervision.

We need, for a short period, to separate literacy from the rest of education, just until the young person can enter a classroom without fear of losing face in front of their peers, without feeling the anger rising as embarrassment takes hold. Over the years I’ve seen that transition take place in as little as two hours, but by the end of about 12 hours most young people are beginning to re-imagine themselves as belonging in places where reading happens.

58. Diversion schemes set up around the country between the police and YOTs have sought, where possible, to deal with children outside of the criminal justice system…Very few children fail to take up this informal support, and those discovered by the assessment process to have additional concerns can be referred to other agencies such as mental health or social care.

Yes, but let’s extend diversion/informal support to include literacy of the highest quality – the sort that makes a young person think education is within reach. 

Finally – in the section on education in custody:

135. Teaching methods throughout the secure estate have not kept pace with changes in our schools. I was surprised to hear reference to children’s learning styles despite clear evidence that such an approach to teaching is neither necessary nor effective. Equally, I have serious concerns about the teaching of reading. Many teachers I have spoken to in custody were not able to describe how reading is taught in their establishment. Children in custody should be taught to read using phonics, and every teacher working in custody must understand how it is taught if they are to play their part.

Yes, but, but… I know I should be thrilled with the recommendation that phonics be the main strategy for teaching reading in custody, but I’m far too aware how misunderstood and/or inflammatory that word is. I also know first-hand how babyish most phonics programmes are for young people who’ve already suffered enough shame in education; it was the whole reason I created That Reading Thing. My fear is that the very word will alienate teachers on the one hand and be off-putting for young people on the other. 

So the but here is that any literacy programme for youth justice needs answer yes (no ‘but’) to the following criteria:

  • Is it completely age appropriate – not just in appearance, but in structure and content.
    • Does it get them reading and spelling long words in the first 30 minutes?
    • Does it go beyond high frequency words so young people have strategies for reading anything at all?
    • Does it take into account that most young people will already have their own bank of sight words?
    • Does it take them into a world of adult vocabulary from the outset?
    • Does it allow for reading real age-appropriate and interesting text?
  • Does it take into account previous experience of learning to read – and especially previous failure to do so?

    • Does it have the equivalent of The Deal? (You never have to know anything we haven’t learned together.)
    • Does it give control of the lesson materials and pace to the young person?
    • Does it ban “teaching phonics” in favour of facilitating discovery of how the language works for reading and spelling.


Yes to greater focus on education, but allow them to be gaining confidence in reading and spelling before the higher educational expectations kick in.

Yes to diversion, but be willing to include literacy. Be creative about how that happens and who delivers it.

Yes to phonics, but make sure it respects the dignity of the learner and mitigates past educational failure.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.