In a cell, but learning has set them free

7th September 2001 at 01:00
MOTHERWELL COLLEGE has been credited with making a major impact on the provision of education within Scotland's main young offenders' institution at Polmont.

The annual report from the chief inspector of prisons, published last week, singled out the college's contribution and praised the new education manager for "bringing fresh energy and drive to the delivery of education services".

The prison's visiting committee - an independent lay watchdog - stated in its annual report that the college has "brought about a trans-formation in the service provided to the young offenders".

The accolades come when the college is emerging as Scotland's main provider of prison education with contracts in seven out of 16 establishments. Lillias Noble, the Scottish Prison Service's education adviser, says:

"Previously the prison education service was fragmented and based on a curriculum determined by individual prison governors, college providers and lecturers. Now we have a coherent strategy led by a basic core skills agenda and shaped by the learning needs of the prisoners."

Motherwell attributes its success to a strong commitment to prison education. Angela Towns, its prisons contracts manager, says: "It is part of the whole process of helping prisoners adjust to their new experience."

It is also due, she says, to rigorous staff selection procedures which include introductory prison visits and shadowing lecturers. "We say watch it, feel it," Ms Towns says. "We want staff who want to be here."

In prisons and young offender institutions students may, in one sense, be a captive audience. But there is no compulsion to attend classes. Since the typical prisoner has a history of school failure, efforts have to be made to entice them. At Polmont, out of 450 16 to 21-year-olds, more than 180 take part in formal education. Demand exceeds places.

Dan Gunn, the governor, stresses: "We say to prisoners, 'if you are serious about change you should go to classes'." But he adds: "The last thing we must call them is school." Classes are therefore held in a recently refurbished block in what is called the Learning Centre.

Traditional subject terms have also been dropped. Biology, for example, is called "bodywise". Maths translates to "numeracy". Courses such as business start-up and form filling for social security and housing applications are taught. Support is offered through Polmont's new "Throughcare Programme", aimed at ensuring prisoners have the knowledge, skills and support agency contacts to ease their passage back into society.

But core skills are the main part of the agenda, with literacy, numeracy, communications and interpersonal skills being constantly reinforced - even in cookery classes.

One popular choice, art, is used as a marketing tool. "It's a way of getting them in the door," Pauline Wylde, Polmont's education manager, says. "It gets them hooked. Then the time honoured method of word of mouth applies. They say to each other, 'it's all right, give it a try'."

Scott Gaughan, aged 19, in Polmont for culpable homicide, is one prisoner who has surprised himself and looks set to achieve a respectable batch of qualifications. "I find I can concentrate much better here than I did when I was at school. I'm now doing something I really enjoy."

Alan Brady, 19, serving time for assault, appreciates the elevation of status from pupil to student. "You get treated more as an adult here," he says. "The only difference is at the end of the day you walk down a corridor to a cell."

Even in a cell, education can be a bonus. "I like the homework," he says. "It gives you something to do in the evenings and weekends."

Classes run all year round but students come and go depending on the start and finish of their sentence. Prison officers also have to be available to supervise, something which is not always possible.

Timetables are set on a daily basis. A complex task but one that allows prisoners to practise their negotiating skills. "It is a sign of maturity if they come to me in an attempt to juggle their different activities," Ms Wylde says.

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