10/02/2012 13:10 GMT | Updated 10/04/2012 06:12 BST

Every Child Can Learn Instead of Going to Prison

Half of the juveniles arrested during last year's summer riots in Britain were educational failures who had not mastered the basics by the age of 11, said the Government.

An official report shows that 48% of young people arrested by police were unable to read or write properly by the time they left primary school. Around the same amount couldn't do simple sums either.

Many of the young rioters had special needs and came from poorer backgrounds in a further sign of how their lives had been blighted before they'd hardly even started them.

"Send these thugs to borstal," came the cry from Boris Johnson and other commentators. In the week of Charles Dickens' 200th birthday, could it be that we haven't really moved on?

There is evidence, too, that, in America, kids are being damned as society's failures at an even younger age.

Lesley Morrow, the former president of the International Reading Association is on record as saying some states in America determine how many prison cells to build based on reading tests in the third and fourth grade - that means kids are being written off at eight years old.

The shocking truth is that the prison stats back up this planning method. Rates of learning difficulty are spectacularly high among prisoners. Just over a year ago the Prison Reform Trust carried out a major study and showed that children with learning difficulties were far more likely to end up in prisons than other children. They concluded that failing to identify and make provision for children's support needs was the most significant factor in determining the likelihood of them ending up in jail one day.

Jenny Talbot, author of the report, said: "Children with learning disabilities, mental health problems and other impairments make up the majority of people in the youth justice system. 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."

Well before this report, a Channel Four 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 of the inmates was Thomas, aged 18, convicted four times already for house burglary. His education seems to have been a write-off. Although he was asked to leave five primary schools for bad behaviour and bullying, his learning difficulties were never examined so his dyslexia went undiscovered. Some of the tough, hardened, young offenders at Polmont broke down in tears when they discovered that, while they clearly had specific learning difficulties, they were not "thick". Several wondered why they could not have taken such a simple test much earlier in their lives...

The appalling fact is that the great majority of prisoners are in prison because they haven't learned the requisite skills to function in a civilised society. Until we respond to the fact that not every student can learn in the same way, at the same speed, in the same classroom and that we NEED them to be identified and taught in the way that they learn, nothing will change.

The problem is not the lack of reading skills nor even the lack of acquired knowledge, though both are desirable for a fully functional life. Rather, the more damaging effects of learning difficulties happen deep in children's sense of self and affect their behaviour, their self esteem and their feelings of worth in ways that go far beyond reading.

What happens to a young child's motivation and ambition when they start talking themselves into believing that they are stupid? In order to protect themselves from the shame, they develop attention-seeking habits. They take their frustration out into the playground and bash someone over the head because there they can be an equal. The evidence is stark. The emotional effects are startling. By now, many of these kids are being bullied and the feelings of low self-esteem and lack of confidence 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 or dysfunctional families, they can get caught up in a cycle of frustration, truancy and crime which, eventually, dumps them in prison.

Study after study has come up with the same conclusion so why have we not made the move from knowing about this issue to doing something about it?

Henry Winkler, who tours schools with First News and me every year as part of our My Way! campaign, didn't find out he was dyslexic until he was 31. My Way! promotes the understanding of learning challenges among pupils, teachers and parents so that everyone can work together to support the child who learns differently and to help raise their self esteem. Henry doesn't want any child to go through the feelings he had about himself growing up. Now he tells every child he meets that they have greatness inside them. "You need to find out what your gift is, dig it out and give it to the world," he tells them. And their eyes shine with their potential.

So, here's an idea.

Children are tested continuously and continually at school to find out what they have learned in English, Maths and Science and, eventually, in every subject. Why don't we introduce an assessment near the beginning of a child's educational journey, say at the end of KS1 at seven years old, 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, ADD, ADHD, Asperger Syndrome or other learning challenges were identified and helped early on, before problems took root.

The cost of this must surely be less than the cost of incarceration a few years down the line, not to mention the cost in wasted lives.

Many parents who suspect their child may have a learning challenge are put off by the expense or difficulty in having them assessed - Dyslexia Action say an assessment by an educational psychologist is £500. For poorer families that cost is prohibitive. Applying for a statutory assessment is difficult and they are often refused.

Paul Bates from the British Dyslexia Association told me: "Testament to this is the fact that 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.