Identifying those with difficulties

What follows is a simple method for identifying those with learning difficulties and learning disabilities in need of further support in court.  Potentially, there are only a few questions you need ask:

  • When did you start school, and when did you leave?

Rationale: Most of Europe start by 5 or 6 years of age and most end between 16 and 18 years. Therefore, if they started school later, or ended early, there may be a problem.

  • How many GCSEs have you passed at C grade or better?

Rationale: Only 35% of students do not achieve at least 5 C grades or better. The fewer they pass at C grade or better the lower their ability; GCSEs came into existence in the mid-1980s so this rule applies to anyone under 40 years of age.

  • Ask the client if they ever had special/remedial classes in school.

Rationale: The Warnock report (1979) identified that 20% of students have special educational needs (SEN) at any one time. Anyone who attended ‘remedial’ classes fall into this 20% with difficulties. ‘Warnock’ is still considered the leading guide to SEN numbers, even in 2016.

  • Ask the client if they ever attended a special school or unit.

Rationale: Less than 1% of all students attend special schools and/or units.  The Bercow review (2008) found those attending special schools and units due to behavioural problems also had a 60% chance of having a significant language, and/or, communication difficulty.

  • Ask the client if they have ever been seen by a psychologist, psychiatrist or a psychiatric nurse.

Rationale: ‘Access’ suggests that (1) a referral was made and (2) it was assessed as requiring further investigation. This puts them into the ‘neediest’ 3%-5% of the population. 30% of those with learning/intellectual disability also suffer mental health problems (Royal College Psychiatrists, 2013).

  • If there is doubt about the answers:

Ask them to recite the alphabet.

Ask them to recite the months of the year.

Rationale: These are skills usually mastered no later than 8 or 9 years of age.

Useful background information

The Bercow review (2008) identified that 60% of students attending special schools or special units for those with behavioural and mental health difficulties also had speech, language and social communication difficulties (including Autism). Many of these students proceed into the justice system.

Attending any special school places the young person into the lowest 0.8% of the school population. Such difficulties typically persist into adulthood.

The Bercow review was then followed by The Royal Society of Speech and Language Therapists who, in March 2012 in their submission to the Ministry of Justice, cited that 65% of younger offenders had speech, language and social communication disorders (autistic spectrum disorders), with up to 20% being of such complexity that they would be classed as ‘severe.’

Hence, two-in-every-three offenders will have difficulties with language and social communication. Whereas basic speech for conversation may ‘sound reasonable,’ these difficulties with understanding persist into and throughout adulthood.

Poor language and communication skills directly impact intelligence and memory; they cause additional impairment.

The Prison Reform Trust (2007) published research showing that the UK prison population had an average IQ of 87, which is 13 points lower than the general population.

30% of prisoners had a learning disability or difficulty that impaired the ability to cope with the justice system.

There is a 1 in 3 chance that a client has an IQ below 80.

Between 7% and 10% of the UK prison population has a learning/intellectual disability, with an IQ of 69 or less. Historically, compared to US data from 1938, this figure for those with learning disability in prison has not changed (Brown and Hartman, 1938).

In short, there is a greater probability that your client has a difficulty, or disability than not.


If half the prison population has an IQ of 87 or lower, this places them in the lowest 20% compared to the rest of the population. If they were in education they would have Special Educational Needs (SEN), which might see the need for help and support.

Are the courses in prison designed for those with special educational needs?

Are the courses in prison designed for those with speech, language and social communication disorders?

As children, many offenders failed to learn to read, write or do maths. That is, over the 11 years of full time education, attending for 6 hours a day for 39 weeks a year, they failed to learn. Are the courses in prison designed for this population of ‘learners?’

Are those who deliver the training and various courses trained and supervised appropriately for this complex population of learners?

Note: ‘learning disability’ is increasingly being referred to as ‘intellectual disability;’ see DSM 5 (2013).

updated: 6/11/16