NEW LIFE could soon be breathed into the drive towards lifelong learning in the unlikely setting of Scotland's prisons. Henry McLeish, the Home Affairs Minister, recently suggested to an audience of senior prison managers that they should regard their establishments as "learning communities".
The new Scottish Prison Service policy, Education which matters - learning which works, is intended to do just that following an invitation to tender for new education contracts in April 2000.
Lilias Noble, the prison service's education adviser, said the policy was "just the start of a process of standardising learning opportunities for prisoners and young offenders in Scotland".
The current opt-in system which invites prisoners to take up educational opportunities is to be replaced with a new ethos: an expectation of involvement. While prisoners will still be able to opt out, it is hoped that a climate of purposeful learning will encourage them not to.
The aim is to move away from a "whimsical" curriculum towards a system which is "fully congruent with the Scottish education system". Prisoners and young offenders will be given individual plans of action in a nationally approved prison service format.
From the day they step inside the gates, they will be assessed in literacy using tests from the Basic Skills Agency. Learning programmes, delivered by contracted colleges, will be based on the five core skills at the heart of the Higher Still programme: communication, numeracy, information technology, working with others and problem-solving.
The emphasis on specially designed courses for the prison service, at times regarded as time-occupying education-cum-therapy, is to be reduced to make way for more clearly defined objectives. Contracted colleges will provide courses certificated through the Scottish Qualifications Authority, offering opportunities that mirror the outside world.
An SQA art course, for example, would sideline art therapy into recreational and counselling programmes. Similarly educational guidance would be offered as a positive addition to the individual counselling programme.
The push for greater continuity in prisoner education will be further enhanced by more standardised record-keeping. SQA ProFile (available for adults by April 2000) and National Record of Achievement systems will ensure prison-to-prison continuity. They will also equip released prisoners with qualifications that are recognised in the jobs market.
An annual education development plan in tandem with regular progress reports from prisons and contracted colleges will ensure appropriate provision for differing prison populations.
Prison governors and education co-ordinators have welcomed the new policy. Dan Gunn, governor of Polmont young offenders institution, endorsed the need for a "dynamic programme of normalisation", offering prisoners greater employability after their sentence has been served.
Mr Gunn said that young offenders especially show a real need and demand for education.
Trevor Short, unit manager for regimes at Cornton Vale women's prison, also welcomed the new initiative. "It gives the education co-ordinator a national framework and a much more focused approach, but also allows team leaders the flexibility to adapt it to the needs of their own establishments," Mr Short said.
Mr Gunn also agreed on the importance of striking a balance between standardised learning and local needs. He said Polmont already has "an excellent rapport with Falkirk College which gives us tremendous support".
Ms Noble emphasised that the need to improve life skills and self-esteem was still fundamental. The aim was to achieve this by using learning action plans to supplement, but not replace, existing counselling services.