The key to freedom

20th June 2003 at 01:00
Studying online in prisons may reduce rates of recidivism. Joe Clancy reports.

An experiment with learndirect in prisons has opened doors for offenders usually reluctant to take up formal educational opportunities. Prison education officers claim that inmates who are too embarrassed to attend classes because they are unable to read and write are among those eager to tap into learndirect.

Five prisons, including two for young offenders, have taken part in a pilot project in which 10 learndirect programmes can be accessed by prisoners throughout the day. Now, following the year-long trial, an independent review is calling for the project to be implemented across the prison system.

The Marchmont Observatory at Exeter University, which carried out the review, found that the most significant impact of learndirect was in widening participation in learning. It reported that learndirect boosted prisoners' motivation, self-confidence and self-esteem. It also improved relationships between prisoners and between inmates and officers trained to support them in accessing courses.

Jo Pye, Marchmont's senior researcher, said: "A particular problem in prisons is that inmates fear exposure in areas where they are weak. They are reluctant in group situations to show that they are deficient in any way. Learndirect provides a private and safe space to learn without exposing inmates to the scrutiny of their peers. It has been a real success story and will have a positive effect in reducing recidivism."

Learndirect has been given a big role forging links between other government departments to encourage learning in non-traditional settings.

In the armed forces, it is helping servicemen and women to continue their training wherever in the world they might be posted. And in public libraries, learndirect has entered a partnership with the People's Network, a project connecting all public libraries to the Internet, as part of the Government's commitment to give everyone in the UK the opportunity to get online. More than 4,000 library centres have been created through the initiative.

The take-up through learndirect in libraries has been particularly marked in rural areas, Keith Jones, senior curriculum manager at Ceredigion College in West Wales, says: "Part of the success is the enthusiasm of the library service in selling the courses and linking them to qualifications."

Ann Limb, chief executive of learndirect, said: "Ufi's work with partners includes all government departments and agencies."

But it is in prisons - a collaboration with the Home Office and DfES - that the most immediate impact is being felt. At Feltham Young Offenders Institution in Middlesex, Dave Jones, manager of learndirect, believes the courses could be a major factor in preventing re-offending. "It is very beneficial for lads who may not feel comfortable in the classroom," he says. "They can use the facility at their own pace, in their own time, and can chose what they want to learn.

"If they don't fully understand a programme they can go back to it again and again until they do. They don't get frustrated because they have missed being taught something.

"Some of these boys have short-term attention spans, but these programmes enable them to dip in and out whenever they want. It is one-to-one with the machine."

Feltham has 20 wings housing prisoners aged 15 to 21. Twelve computers loaded with 10 specially devised courses were used, three in the library and the rest spread around the wings.

The inmates are offered as full-time educational programme at Feltham, with teachers supplied by North East Surrey college of technology. From July, new computers are being delivered which will offer offenders 40 new learndirect courses, including car mechanics, business management, and English as a second language.

The most popular course is the European Computer Driving Licence programme, says Mr Jones, with Cybercook second because inmates "can eat what they cook".

"There is a problem with manning levels which stops lads being able to use the computers at certain times," he says. "There is also a problem that the computers aren't networked, so if a lad starts work on a machine in the library, he cannot pick up where he left off when he returns to his wing.

We cannot ever allow lads to have external access to the Internet but we could have an intranet. They could then carry on the learndirect course when they leave."

At Leeds prison, they know that prisoners definitely want to get involved with online lessons. A pilot introduced last year catered for only three of its six wings.

"News about learndirect quickly spread around all the wings," says John Josling, the learndirect co-ordinator, "and those without access have been asking to take the courses. What we have found is that inmates who have started have been given the confidence to go into full-time education. It has given them a flavour which they wouldn't have got otherwise. Education is a key part of rehabilitation."

The National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro), also supports the introduction of learndirect in prisons.

Craig Harris, director of education and employment for the crime reduction charity, says: "Many prisoners lack even the most basic educational qualifications and it is vital that we address this. Released prisoners who remain unemployed are up to twice as likely to reoffend."

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