Prison firm barred over exam queries

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Provider suspended after unfeasibly rapid test success. James Sturcke reports

The only private firm running courses for adult prisoners has been suspended for failing to explain how inmates got high scores in "spectacularly rapid time". The bar does not apply to its other examination centres.

Reed Learning has been told it cannot submit completed papers or get results for its Brixton prison students until it convinces the OCR exam board that there has been no "examination malpractice".

Reed failed to answer letters from OCR, which expressed concerns about results in numeracy and literacy tests. Prison governor John Podmore told FE Focus: "This is the first I have heard about the centre being suspended.

I shall get on to it right away."

Alarm bells rang at OCR after four candidates scored above 75 per cent in less than 10 minutes for their level 1 adult literacy and numeracy exams.

Candidates are allowed an hour to answer the 40 multiple-choice questions which make up the literacy paper, and one hour 15 minutes for the numeracy test. Typically, candidates would score around 50 per cent.

Bene't Steinberg, OCR's head of public affairs, said: "We need them to explain how these people achieved what they achieved in such a spectacularly rapid time."

Reed said computers failed to make accurate recordings of the time taken to complete the tests, but refused to comment on why it had not replied to OCR's letters.

Tom Lovell, a director of Reed Learning, said: "We believe the timers on the computers failed to record accurately the time it took to complete the exam.

"We are currently in discussion with OCR to resolve this issue before continuing with computer-based exams.

"We have a separate awarding body for paper-based exams, so we are able to offer inmates this option in the meantime.

"That means they can continue to study for - and hopefully achieve - adult numeracy and literacy qualifications."

News of Reed's suspension comes as prison education faces a major overhaul, with new tenders being invited from existing and potential training organisations, including colleges.

Steve Taylor, director of the Forum on Prisoner Education, said: "It is not acceptable that a large local prison, where so many educational foundations could be laid, is not in a position to offer these examinations to its students.

"The governor, area manager, and the offenders' learning and skills unit (at the Learning and Skills Council) must take swift action to remedy these problems and ensure the contractor makes dramatic improvements in delivery.

If the contractor can't deliver, replace it with one that can."

The forum says Brixton spent pound;443 per training place in the last financial year, compared with pound;908 at Wormwood Scrubs, pound;848 at Pentonville and pound;639 at Wandsworth. Brixton prisoners spend 24 minutes a week in basic skills classes, compared with two hours at Wormwood Scrubs.

Reed is contracted to provide education at Brixton prison and Blackenhurst prison, Worcestershire. A third contract at Latchmere House prison, in Surrey, expired last August and was not renewed. Mr Podmore said: "I'm aware that a member of the education team at Brixton reported irregularities with computer-based exam timings to OCR toward the latter part of 2004. It is clear that OCR responded to those concerns by requesting further information, which was not forthcoming from managers at Reed."

He said Reed, also a leading recruitment and human resources specialist, had been conducting an "open and thorough" inquiry into the programme at Brixton prison.

OCR says it suspends fewer than 12 of its 13,500 centres each year, and that in most cases there are no suspicious circumstances.

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