SEN pupils locked out of prison project

12th March 2010 at 00:00
Award-winning scheme that brought together inmates and special-needs children is scrapped

When alison Beane took over as head designate of Mary Rose School in Portsmouth in 2005, one of the first phone calls she received was rather unexpected - it was from the local prison.

"I was invited into HMP Kingston to meet the staff and talk about the links they previously had," she said. "They valued them and wanted to know if I would continue with it."

Mrs Beane agreed to visit the high-security prison, which accommodates men serving life sentences, and what followed was one of the most unusual - and unlikely - initiatives to be found anywhere in the county.

The head and the prison authorities set about developing a project that would see teenagers from the school, which specialises in children with severe learning and emotional difficulties, use the prison gym facilities and receive one-to-one tuition by prisoners who were working towards a coaching qualification as part of their rehabilitation.

Indeed, the project was so successful that last month it won a Specialist Sports Colleges' Innovation and Recognition Award.

But now, suddenly, it has been shelved. Earlier this year, Mrs Beane was informed that a blanket ban had been imposed on all school and prison contact.

She was, unsurprisingly, devastated by the news.

"When I went on that visit, it was the first time I'd been in a prison," Mrs Beane said. "I had a lot of ideas about what prisons are and what prisoners had done, but it was a humbling experience.

"Like anyone else, there was a range of circumstances why the men had ended up there. They had done something significantly wrong, but I sat down with the PT instructors and they described some of the prisoners to me and what their hopes were for being rehabilitated.

"The people they were putting forward to do the training with our students were doing vocational courses which could be used when they go back out into the world."

The safety of the children was top priority, and a raft of security checks was put in place.

None of the inmates on the programme had been charged with sexual crimes or offences involving children.

The entire sports facility was sealed off from the other prisoners and the children were shielded from view at all times. The inmates were accompanied by a minimum of two officers and pupils were accompanied by school staff at all times. Parents, carers, staff and governors visited the prison before approving the project, and participation was voluntary.

"What the inmates got was an accredited sports vocation," said Mrs Beane. "But it was important to me that our pupils had a high-quality PE experience, so our staff trained the inmates in how to plan and deliver the work. They were taught disability awareness and Makaton sign language."

All the pupils have severe and complex learning needs and some also have physical disabilities. The pupils who were coached last year gained a key stage 4 AQA vocational qualification in PE.

Mrs Beane said: "Our pupils enjoyed the experience, in terms of the sport and the banter. One pupil said he was helping prisoners get their qualifications and felt pride that he can help them rather than always being the one needing help."

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