Barred from basic benefits

Most offenders lack the skills to qualify them for work, but they have been continually failed by learning providers

Last November Martin Narey, the Government's prisons and probation supremo, asked the Adult Learning Inspectorate to review the probation service's arrangements for basic skills.

The report was delivered to the Home Office and the Department for Education and Skills in early summer but has only just re-emerged accompanied by a Government response.

Even after allowing plenty of time for thought and, presumably, some negotiation, only one of 17 "main findings" in the published report is grudgingly positive in accepting that some fruitful partnerships with providers have been established between probation services and learning and skills providers on the ground. Another concedes that there are effective managers at area level in the Probation Service but goes on to say that they lack an understanding of why they are involved in this initiative.

The rest is a truly sorry tale.

The Probation Service, like the Prison Service, with which it is to be merged, has in its charge some out-and-out villains but the majority of its clients are drawn from the casualties of our prosperous, post-industrial society.

These are the victims of broken homes: 38 per cent of prisoners under 21 have been in care. They are from families with previous records of criminality: nearly 50 per cent of prisoners ran away from home as a child.

They are drawn from the homeless, the unemployed and the mentally ill.

Educationally, the lives of most offenders have been a disaster. More than half have no qualifications, nearly half of all male prisoners have been excluded from school and a disturbingly high proportion of these, it is no surprise to learn, are black. Most prisoners have levels of basic skills low enough to exclude them from 96 per cent of available jobs.

These issues, and some of the problems around giving the Probation Service a responsibility to improve offenders' basic skills, were set out earlier in my own discussion document, Learning's not a crime, published by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education and recently reviewed in FE Focus.

The recent Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) report echoes many of these points and sets out starkly how we continue to fail these people.

Managers in the probation service have often not understood why they are involved in all this and have lacked clear direction and support from above. Delivery agreements were made for probation areas seemingly without any consideration of what was likely to be feasible - adding the demoralisation of conscientious staff to the other problems.

The tool used by most services to assess need is in itself inappropriate for analysing the complex learning needs of offenders.

The results of assessments and information about any previous achievements are not shared and passed on from prisons, and offenders repeat assessments and even courses they have already done.

Courses tend to follow a rigid pattern, much too often the two hours a week so entrenched in traditional and unimaginative adult education services.

This can be inappropriate to the actual lives of the offenders and attendance can be disrupted and sporadic.

The range of teaching methods and learning materials is narrow. Even much of the accommodation is inadequate. Basic skills are often delivered in isolation from vocational training geared to the job aspirations of individuals and even from the offender learning programmes they are obliged to attend. There are offenders who cannot participate effectively in those programmes through a lack of the necessary basic skills.

The emphasis is too much on achieving basic skills qualifications (the targets) and too little on what this can mean for jobs and improved life chances. Basic skills can seem to be an add on, to be discarded as soon as possible along with other parts of the sentence.

Much of this flies in the face of what we know about motivating people who have avoided learning in the past.

While co-ordination on the ground is often weak, it is where good partnerships between Probation Services and providers have been forged that real progress can be seen, even to the extent that some offenders continue with their training beyond the completion of their supervision order.

Major recommendations of Learning's not a crime were that these local partnerships should be formed and given practical support, and that work with ex-offenders should be integrated, encouraged and supported since these new learners are most unlikely to have completed their learning journey by the end of their sentence.

The Government's response to the ALI report rightly draws attention to the many reforms that have already been put in place and to others that are planned, though it recognises the need to do better.

The real tragedy in all this is surely the wasted time and the needlessly wasted lives. It is seven years since Helena Kennedy pointed out that for many of those who had not benefited from education first time round it was often a case of "if you don't succeed, you don't succeed".

It is seven years since David Blunkett, then Education Secretary, enthused us all with the eloquence of the Government's commitment to widen participation. It is since then that basic skills responsibilities were given to the probation service. That has proved a false start for some of those most in need of the benefits of a policy of widening participation.

Mr Blunkett, of course, is now at the Home Office and has thus presided over both parts of this sorry mess. One out of 10, David; must try harder.

Tony Uden is a senior research fellow at Niace

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