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Offenders flock to help students;Further Education

Convicts and pupils who have learning difficulties share a common feeling of being outsiders. Simon Midgley reports on how they can help each other.

FOR the past year a prison, whose inmates include murderers, rapists and armed robbers, has been working with a college whose students suffer from autism, Asperger's syndrome and aggressive behaviour, to groom them for life outside.

The mission statement in reception at HM Prison Lowdham Grange in Nottinghamshire says that the privately-run, high-security gaol's intention is to provide a secure, safe and humane environment for prisoners along with meaningful opportunities for self-improvement, aimed at successful return to the community.

Fifteen miles away in the village of Brant Broughton, Lincolnshire, another mission statement is displayed in a privately-run, residential further education college, Broughton House College. This says that the company that runs the college, the Hesley Group, will do its best to enable young people with special needs to achieve their full potential.

Under the watchful eye of prison physical education instructors and with the help of college staff, carefully-selected prisoners have been running twice-weekly physical education classes for young men and women from the college in the prison's gym. These sessions are designed to give the students an opportunity to develop their social and physical skills and become more confident.

Such sessions include warm- up spells, circuits round the gym,races, exercises, basketball, some games and at the end, an exuberant rendition of the hokey cokey.

For the prisoners this is an opportunity to acquire the 10 hours of voluntary sports leadership experience necessary to help them achieve a Community Sports Leader Award. They also have to complete seven other modules of study which include organisational skills, safety in sport, fitness for sport and how to organise leagues and competitions.

Joan Appleby, who was deputy head of the college until the end of last month, initiated the collaboration with the prison just over a year ago, after finding difficulty in locating any suitable gyms for her college's students. The prison was keen to help because inmates on its sports leadership courses needed practical experience in leading voluntary sports programmes.

"It's a chance for our students to get out of the college and get to know different personalities," she said. "The inmates are wonderful with them."

Autistic young people find new situations extremely daunting. They also find communication difficult and angry outbursts sometimes result. Two groups of up to 10 prisoners are working towards the Community Sports Leader Award and the more advanced Higher Sports Leader Award.

Every Wednesday three young women from the college attend a training session and every Friday morning six young men from the college work out with inmates in the prison gym. Two of the college's staff, Mrs Appleby and Dan Coachafer, have also been attending the prison's Wednesday sessions to attain advanced sports leadership awards.

Inmate Craig Holness, aged 36, who had no qualifications when he arrived at the prison 17 months ago, has gained the Community Sports Leader Award and is now working towards the higher award.

"I get a lot of satisfaction from working with the youngsters," he said. "It's a way of giving a bit back and helping other people. The more attention you give the students, the better they respond. Because they find it very hard to express themselves, their frustration can build up and boil over.

"It's something that we all look forward to. In prison you spend a lot of time being bored and doing nothing. I would like to work with young people aged 14 to 16 who were starting off on the wrong road and steer them on to a better path, rather than taking the road that I chose."

Inmate Michael Hogan, aged 52, said: "I was a bit apprehensive at first. I wondered what I was letting myself in for. It's the first time I have met autistic people and it's been more educational for me than them. The students need confidence and a little bit of love, just like my grandchildren.

"I get a lot of pleasure out of it, seeing how happy they are."

Rob Hagon, aged 41, another inmate, said he got satisfaction from seeing the young men's hand and eye co-ordination improve and seeing them them grow in confidence.

Stuart Percival, a physical education instructor at the prison,said the inmates gained a great deal from the experience.

"I think they get a sense of fulfilment. They are actually putting something back into the community, rather than just taking," he said. "And the students love it. They cannot get in here quick enough."

Bill Matthews, aged 59, a care worker at the college, said: "I think it's been absolutely fantastic for the lads and girls. They really enjoy it. They like a lot of activity.

"There have been many changes of prison inmates taking part, but they have all joined in the spirit of it and been enthusiastic about it."

Paul Jones, who is in charge of PE at the prison, said: "While they're here, the men completely forget the hard-man image they feel they have to keep up in prison. It puts them in touch with themselves and forces them to re-examine their priorities."

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