Locked in to learning

31st August 2007 at 01:00
Inmates are training to become peer tutors in an IT initiative at Cornton Vale prison.

ADULT LITERACY courses thes days depend on information technology and peer tutor support. But if you are working in a secure environment like HMP Cornton Vale, there are particular restrictions and problems to be negotiated.

For obvious reasons, the students have no internet access and there is a constant turnover of peer support tutors as prisoners complete or move towards completion of their sentences.

"IT is our biggest magnet to draw people into education, even though lack of access to live websites restricts the resources we can use," says Kaye Stewart, learning co-ordinator for Lauder College in Cornton Vale.

In place of internet access, the education unit has set up its own intranet, a fixed site which is interactive and provides autonomy and accessibility to learners using attractive on-screen literacy re-sources. These range from spelling (games, quizzes), reading (using Text Help), writing and vocabulary exercises to times tables, mental maths and money calculations.

Working in class and with one-to-one peer support, learners can work at their own pace and check their own progress.

Lauder College began its peer support pilot three years ago and, thanks to a grant from Learning Connections in 2006-07, it has been able to set up a programme to train peer tutors in the additional use of IT.

"Potential tutors have to be serving a sentence in Cornton Vale itself for at least eight months for it to be worthwhile to train them," says Ms Stewart. "They have to have the right level of skills and the right kind of personality - all in all, not necessarily an easy combination to find in a prison."

Applicants do not require to have previous experience of tutoring but need to state in writing why they want to become peer tutors and what skills they feel they will bring to the role. They usually volunteer because of their own experience of classes and so are already known to the teaching staff.

They are then given an eight-session training course in what is meant by "literacies learning"; how adults learn; barriers to learning; how to tutor in reading, writing and numeracy; planning work; and using computers to tutor literacies skills.

Given the turnaround of such tutors in Scotland's only women's prison (and female young offenders institution), the education unit aims to maintain around four peer tutors at any given time.

There are 340 offenders in Cornton Vale, ranging from remand and short-term prisoners to those serving life sentences. Around 140 are engaged with education at one level or another; and of those, around 100 are following a programme of learning and attending classes every week.

Last month, an HMI Prisons report criticised conditions at the jail, stating that there was a lack of "purposeful activities" for women on remand. But Ms Stewart says: "Anyone serving over 30 days comes to a welcome morning, where they are introduced to classes on offer and their literacies are assessed by computer in a non-threatening way. We use the SQA literacies assessment."

Peer tutors attend these mornings and often act as "friendly faces" to new learners who may harbour a negative view of teachers per se, because of their own school experiences.

"Some have very negative memories of school, some became school refuseniks at the age of 13 or 14, while others were in secure schools," she says.

"From the beginning they are told that if they join a class, they become Lauder College students which they do. This helps to break down the idea that education is not for them, and this is where both IT and peer tutors play a vital role.

"Peer tutors help on a one-to-one basis as well as in classes," she says. "They are role models and help develop a positive ethos among their peers, while using IT makes the new learners more at ease than initial book learning would. That often reminds them of school and makes them feel childish."

Most students' courses range from Access 3 level to Intermediate 1, with additional needs students taking Access 2. The ultimate hope of the education unit is that students and peer tutors will go on to access more adult education after their sentences and that the tutors may develop further the skills they have learnt and put them to good use.

"Peer tutors learn a lot about working with other people, team work and understanding other people's difficulties," says Ms Stewart. "It's a positive thing to do in what can be a negative environment, and there's no doubt they help other people progress."


I've been a peer tutor for seven months, tutoring in literacy and numeracy, and have OK IT skills.

I wanted to serve my sentence in the best way possible and help others. I had run a company before, so I was used to delivering training programmes and people management to a degree. I'd never done one-to-one tutoring and found it quite difficult at first. It's difficult because your peer can be ill at ease with education.

I began doing two hours a week and now do about four or five, as well as helping out at the induction sessions.

I've seen the benefits now that one-to-one support can provide. I've seen people engaging with education for the first time, seen confidence improve, watched people see the way ahead and enter a class for the first time. It's been enlightening.

There's a lot of help given to the girls in here and I'd like to do some volunteer tutoring when I get out. I've had tremendous back-up and have been able to show the prison qualities that I have, how I can interact, engage and progress.

I first came to the unit to see what classes were on offer but just at the time they were looking for peer tutors. The 15-week course taught me how to deal with people without getting involved in their sentence. We're here to educate and nothing else. You have to keep the focus on edu-cation, on moving people on. You talk about goals.

I've done classes as well, quite a few on money matters, women's health, creative writing and IT and I use IT a lot as a peer tutor.

The women here have to go out eventually and education is essential to their succeeding when they go out. Prisoners have to move on in life, like anybody else. People on the outside sometimes forget this.

What they do here is really good work. That's why I volunteered to talk and be photographed because I'm pleased to be involved and because people outside should want to get people inside involved in education.

My involvement has been very important to me.

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