Sentencing them to failure

Early diagnosis of dyslexia might save some children from a life of crime, writes Sarah Strickland
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Links between criminality and failure at school have exercised the minds of educationalists and psychologists for decades. Angela Devlin, a special needs teacher for 25 years, decided to join the debate in 1992 by embarking on a detailed research project interviewing prisoners about their school experiences, the first study of its kind in the UK. Her findings are published this week in Criminal Classes: Offenders at School.

Of the 250 prisoners who took part in her survey, 26 per cent said they had trouble learning to read or write, double the estimated national average of 10 to 14 per cent. Ms Devlin was unsurprised by the figure, which she had expected to be higher (other research has come up with figures as high as 50 per cent). What did surprise her was that for many, their dyslexia had remained undiagnosed until they got to prison.

Joy, 26, was serving a six-year sentence for robbery and credit card fraud. "I could never learn to read properly and I've only discovered since coming to prison that I'm dyslexic," she told Ms Devlin. "I was never ashamed to tell the teachers I couldn't read because I always hoped somebody would help me to work it out. But they never did. I was very good at sport, so that's what the school concentrated on. I used to win the long jump and the high jump, but that wasn't going to help me out in life, was it? I'm here for robbing banks and doing cards. I couldn't get no jobs so that's what I did." Unable to read the signatures on the cards, she used to memorise them visually. "Then I could write them just the same. No problem."

While no direct causal links can be made between dyslexia and offending, it is clear that labelling a child a "failure" at reading and offering no help with specific learning difficulties can cause immense frustration, anger, alienation and in some cases lead to criminal behaviour. Ms Devlin was quite prepared for those she interviewed to say that nothing could have been done by their schools to prevent their current situation, but the opposite was true. "They felt very cheated. There was an enormous feeling of wasted potential," she says.

Above all they wanted smaller classes and more individual attention from teachers. "The successful treatment of dyslexia lies in early diagnosis, and the larger classes grow, the more likely we are not to pick up problems that can lead to serious disaffection," says Ms Devlin. "Unfortunately, while there are encouraging signs that more teachers are being trained to recognise the first signs of specific learning disabilities, it is all about funding in the end." The process of statementing children for special educational provision also needs to be speeded up, she believes.

While addressing dyslexia early might prevent some from sliding into crime, for those who have already offended it is not too late to tackle the problem. Research in America has shown that re-offending can be reduced by 25 per cent by tackling dyslexic problems. With that evidence in mind, a one-year pilot project for dyslexic offenders was launched in London last week, a joint initiative between the London Action Trust, Southwark College language and literacy unit and the Inner London Probation Service. The project aims to increase probation officers' awareness of dyslexia and its relationship to offending, and to train them to identify dyslexic offenders before their pre-sentence report. Cynthia Klein, who specialises in dyslexia at the London language and literacy unit, said that judges and magistrates also needed to be made aware of the problem.

"Dyslexia affects people's sense of time, their sequencing of events. If their account of events is muddled, it doesn't necessarily mean they are lying," Ms Klein says. "It's not that we want to be soft on people, it's just another fact that ought to be taken into account and be included in reports to the court."

The project also aims to train tutors to provide specialist programmes for dyslexic offenders. "There are always going to be people with dyslexia who are not picked up at school. If we can reach first offenders and give them appropriate help, there's a chance we can stop them spiralling into further crime," says Ms Klein.

'Criminal Classes: Offenders at School' is published by Waterside Press, Winchester.