Offender Learning is undergoing significant change across England, as the government moves to a new system solely focused on reducing reoffending and equipping learners with the skills they need to make the successful transition to the outside world and to enter employment. This involves a controversial payment-by-results model.
Weston College bid for the South West Offenders' Learning and Skills Service Phase 4 (OLASS 4) contract in March this year and was successful. We have worked in prison education for many years so have an insight into what is needed. Despite this, however, the magnitude of such change is dramatic.
The reality is that to understand the issues, you need to get to the heart of the matter. Each week from September up until the end of November, I spent a day at each of the prisons. The process is insightful, heart-rending and inspirational. For example, in one establishment, learners showed me how they had made progress at a phenomenal rate, becoming advocates for learning across the prison. In another, I met two young girls from Wales who were in prison for the first time. They showed me how they had learned to use computers and how they thought, for the first time in their lives, that they may be suitable for employment. I met some very vulnerable prisoners who want to succeed but need encouragement to take that first step into learning.
There is no doubt that offender learning can work. At the end of one day I experienced learners embarking on their first foundation course in construction, another completing an Open University degree and a third group telling me why classes on family learning were turning their lives around.
In one prison I met a group of learners, probably not even 20 years of age, who were proud of their developed skills in painting and decorating and described to me in detail how they had designed and developed their assignments. Some of them recognised my Welsh accent and when one shouted to the others, "Hey, this one's a Taff!", I knew I had been accepted.
So is the new OLASS 4 approach working? The honest answer is that it is starting to gain momentum. There have been some hearts and minds to win over; some stakeholders still don't understand why the funding regime has changed, while others are finding the transition difficult. However, we do need to train people with attention to cost, to focus on the outcomes and consider supplementing forms of learning through charities and social enterprise. As funding becomes targeted, so the number of hours allocated to courses will change and initially we will see a change in focus of service delivery. I believe this is temporary and, with other funding streams, there still is major opportunity for expansion.
OLASS 4 is one of the most challenging contracts I have ever encountered, but also the most rewarding. Measuring impact is difficult but seeing the academic success is self-evident. Staff who work at the prisons demonstrate patience, integrity and phenomenal dedication. The life stories of some of the prisoners are harrowing and yet they pick themselves up and, with support, really achieve in learning.
Dr Paul Phillips is principal of Weston College.