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Locked into learning

A select group of prisoners in a rough London jail are finding out how to identify and help their fellow inmates overcome barriers to education. David Newnham reports

For a visitor to Belmarsh prison, getting into the place is more difficult than getting out. Keys or coins? Place them in this tray. Belt? Take it off please. Bag? Into the X-ray machine, along with your coat. It's a wonder they don't confiscate your shoelaces. What with the metal detectors and the rub-down, you could be embarking on a transatlantic flight. Except, of course, that this plane is going nowhere fast. Apart from anything else, the sheer weight of all the ironwork would keep it earthbound. There are bars everywhere, all as thick as a wrestler's forearm. Steel mesh around the stairs, steel nets beneath the balconies, a big steel lock on every door - even the library is a Fort Knox.

But inside, the library is an oasis. Which is probably why Timothy Firmston, head of learning, and Claire Matheson, a lecturer employed by Amersham and Wycombe college, choose this room to explain about their Learning Champions project.

Belmarsh is in the London borough of Greenwich, and the project, which developed from the borough's successful Lifelong Learning Partnership and involves the charity ContinYou, is a simple enough idea on the face of it.

Up to a dozen inmates at a time spend a few hours each week learning and thinking about education and discussing why some inmates are reluctant to take advantage of it. With their awareness sharpened, these "learning champions" act as mentors, identifying and counselling men who have barriers to learning, and acting as role models and facilitators in the prison classrooms.

"Many of our inmates have basic skills needs," says Mr Firmston. "Many failed at school, or were failed by their schools, then they come to us.

It's a typical second-chance situation." The strategy at Belmarsh, he says, is to tempt inmates into education with subjects that might interest them - cookery, music or pottery, for instance - then to work in some key skills with a view to giving them the sort of basic qualifications that might help them get jobs when released. Ex-prisoners who find employment are considerably less likely to re-offend than those who end up without a job, he says. "And cutting the re-offending rate is the big mantra."

But the difficulty is that those who might benefit most from education are often those least inclined to sign up for classes, fearing that to do so would be to risk repeating the bad experiences of their schooling. The learning champions have to help break that cycle.

Ms Matheson, who tutors the men for four hours each week, explains: "The course is about communication skills and dealing with learning issues. The curriculum is all about how we learn, working out who the reluctant learners would be and how to overcome barriers to learning." She believes those she has been teaching in the year since the project started have now fine-tuned their communication skills to the point where they can identify men who may need initial support. By interacting with them informally and in their own language, they have started to win converts to the cause of learning.

The course comprises four units. The first three, on the theory of learning, the role of the learning champion and group working, can be achieved inside the prison, but the fourth unit, on using the internet as a research tool (prisons do not allow inmates access to the internet), must be completed at Greenwich college upon release. And it's this concrete connection with the outside world and the emphasis on continued support through a network of contacts in the wider community that is central to this innovative project.

On completion of each unit, Ms Matheson's students are given a certificate that is recognised outside the prison, where it could help gain them access to vocational courses in counselling or social work, and could even put them on the road to a teaching qualification. And even before their release, the Belmarsh learning champions are feeling the benefits of the intensive training they receive two afternoons a week. "None of our learners has been released yet," says Ms Matheson. "But already their involvement with the course has adjusted their behaviour within the prison.

Very quickly they began demonstrating greater confidence in the classrooms and offering encouragement on their own house block."

It's a short distance from the library to the classroom, but each step is accompanied by the jangle of keys and the clatter of locks. Only when the learning champions are seated and the door is secured can discussion begin.

So what's it like, being a "learning champion" in the tough environment of Belmarsh? Don't the other inmates take the, er, mickey? One man, a prisoner on remand, breaks the ice. "It's all right to say 'piss' to us," he jokes, and a wave of laughter breaks against the walls. "But seriously, the culture isn't like that at all. That stereotype of boffins doesn't exist.

"Since I've been doing this course, I've spoken to people who could use the education facilities but don't. I tell them it's an adult learning environment, not a school classroom where you get a rubber thrown at you if you do something wrong. Kids go to school because they have to, but adults should be able to see the benefit for themselves."

And what's in it for the champions? Sure, there's the guarantee of a place at college on release, and the promise of support from learning champions in the community. But, as another inmate explains, there are more immediate, if less tangible, benefits. He is barely 21. Yet by his own admission it is many years since he has been in a classroom. Is it working for him? "Outside," he says, "I wasn't talking to people. I was using less and less vocabulary and wasn't able to express myself. I'd talk to my mum like she was my friend on the street - not disrespectfully, but I'd find myself turning out of character. Now I see myself on a more intellectual path.

"There's a 44-year-old man in my cell and he can't even write his name. He can read the paper, but if you take it away and ask him to spell a word like 'shelf', he won't know how. So I've been working with him, showing him how to break down words - simple, basic stuff. And this has given me an important kind of contentment within myself, knowing I'm not just seen as a criminal, but that people can benefit from me and from what I know."

If his story is a striking testament to the small strides that can be made by a well-thought-out project in the most unpromising of environments, it comes as no surprise to Belmarsh governor Geoff Hughes. "Despite having an image as roughy-toughies, many prisoners have low self-esteem," he says.

"Everybody has told them they're useless, and they're sometimes not even very good at crime, or they wouldn't be in a place like this. If somebody thinks he has some value or that some other person values him, it can do a great deal of good."

Admittedly, he says, such outcomes might be too subtle to measure in the shorter term. But that's no reason not to provide the service, which has already been recognised as an example of good practice in prison education.

"If a prisoner comes out of prison feeling a little bit better about himself, it won't be a box ticked because he turned up at Greenwich college or whatever. But it's still happening. And we have a duty to provide the unmeasurable things, because it's the right thing to do."

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