PRISONERS in Scottish jails are set to benefit from an extended partnership between the Scottish Prison Service and further education. For the first time, a coherent national strategy to give prisoners access to educational opportunities - from basic core skills to degree level - has been put in place.
A key feature will be individual learning plans and progress files which will follow the prisoners when they transfer from jail to jail. Each establishment will each have a development plan setting out educational inputs, expected outcomes and targets. Prisoners will now have to opt out of courses rather the previous opting in.
At the launch last week of an Education 2000 project at Glen-ochil prison, the SPS also announced the award of new contracts with Highland council and Aberdeen, Lauder and Motherwell colleges. The pound;2 million-a-year contracts represent 300,000 "prisoner learning hours" and could mean that some of the 30,000 who pass through the prisons each year, especially those serving long sentences, could get as much as 100 hours' tuition annually.
Lillias Noble, the education adviser of the SPS, said that the prison service was looking forward to working with the four service providers to develop a "focused and targeted" service. "With more than 50 per cent of prisoners experiencing difficulties with reading and writing, the aim of the new policy is to make sure that education makes an impact. This will improve prisoners' opportunities of employment upon release and aid reintegration into the community."
As well as concentrating on numeracy and literacy, the scheme will offer qualifications recognised in the outside world. Links with the colleges will provide more opportunities for employment and better access to supported distance learning, including higher education, where that has been agreed as an appropriate part of a prisoner's sentence plan.
Motherwell College has been involved in prisoner education since 1985 and is the largest provider, with nine contracts on seven sites in the west and south-west. Angela Town, the college's prisons' contracts manager, said that the reason for its involvement is that people in prison are among the most socially excluded.
She went on: "There is a great commitment among college and prison staff to hlp people break out of the revolving door of repeated short sentences. If someone is in employment, having been in prison, the chances of reoffending are reduced by a factor of three.
"If we then add the fact that most people in prison are excluded from something like 96 per cent of jobs because of their low level of literacy skills, it is obvious that if there is a finite amount of resources they should be focused on helping people at the bottom level."
Lauder College in Dunfermline is new to prisoner education, with contracts in the east of the country, Perth and Tayside.
Martin Laidlaw, prisons' contracts manager, said: "We have developed a general portfolio of work that addresses people who have core skills development needs. The difference is clearly that we will be working within closed institutions.
"We will also be working in two open institutions at Castle Huntly and at Noranside near Forfar, where prisoners are preparing for liberation. We have particular expertise in addressing enterprise and employability and moving people back into the mainstream."
One of the prisoners in the computer suite at Glenochil's learning centre has acquired level one of an SQA information technology module and is now working towards level two. He had never used computers before and hopes to use his new skills stocking and ordering in industry when he leaves prison.
Another success story is the prisoner working in the library who is in his first year of an Open University maths course, and intends to complete a degree in computing: "The prison education system has provided finance and facilities for me to do this course, and has also provided mediation between me and the Open University via one of the tutors here."
Lillias Noble linked the SPS education policy, "Education Matters - Learning Works", with the Government's initiatives on social inclusion and lifelong learning: "Recognition of the importance of education in overall sentence management, coupled with new mechanisms for evaluation and monitoring, will assist the SPS in evaluating the provision of education and ensuring it is both relevant and effective for the 21st century."
'It is obvious that if there is a finite amount of resources they should be focused on those at the bottom'