Skills to set you free

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
A new project is helping prisoners overcome their hostility to traditional learning, writes Fiona Leney

For Joe, serving a sentence for manslaughter, it is no exaggeration to say that learndirect has changed his life. The softly-spoken 27-year-old, after 11 years inside, has that most precious of things for a prisoner awaiting release - a job he enjoys and, even more incredibly, one doing something he would never have imagined: teaching.

"My dad said to me the other day, 'How come I could never get you into school, and now you're a teacher?' " Joe himself still seems quite surprised, as he talks of how he discovered learndirect courses at Blantyre House, an open prison in Cranbrook, Kent. "I had a real problem with traditional education in prison. I had a few run-ins with the teachers and felt I was being bullied into doing it, but learndirect was different, a lot more relaxed."

After skills for life courses, maths and English level 2, and a forklift driving qualification, Joe was doing day-release work on building sites as part of his community service when he was offered the chance under the European Social Fund Pathways Project to train as a learndirect instructor for the centre in Kent which had supervised his learning. He qualified last November and is now on day release to teach subjects such as health and safety, and mechanics to students ranging from company employees to Ministry of Defence workers.

"I enjoy my work," he says. "Some of it is a bit daunting, like doing a PowerPoint presentation to a class full of people - I'm more a hands-on type - but the thing is, I can do it. I've picked these skills up."

How to stop prisoners re-offending after their release is a question that has vexed prison reformers and educationists since the Victorian age.

Learning, a worthwhile job and social inclusion are the 21st-century answers, underlined by a green paper published last December: it looked at ways of cutting re-offending through skills and jobs.

That is precisely the aim of the Pathways Project. Whereas traditional education risks alienating prisoners, learndirect's computers and its informality are already producing results.

Internet use by prisoners used to be forbidden - for obvious security reasons - but technological advances have allowed a secure system to be designed so that they can access only learndirect courses and advice, just like learners on the outside.

It's a culture change, trainers say, helping offenders feel they are no longer cut off from the outside world, while encouraging the many who have missed out on education back into learning. According to figures cited in the green paper, 30 per cent of offenders were regular truants (compared with 2 per cent of the population) and 49 per cent of male prisoners were excluded (compared with 1 per cent of non-offenders).

"Sixty per cent of our prisoners are functionally illiterate, which makes it all but impossible to get meaningful employment," says Mary Sharp, head of learning and skills at Wandsworth prison. "And the one thing that does reduce re-offending is long-term, meaningful employment."

Intended for offenders due for release within two years, Pathways aims to get them improving basic skills such as literacy and numeracy that will lead to further qualifications and jobs once they are released. Wandsworth is one of the 15 per cent of prisons across the UK where learndirect is available.

Ufi's involvement with prisons started four years ago, when it offered learndirect courses offline. A study at Exeter university showed that it had boosted prisoners' motivation and self-confidence, and encouraged illiterate offenders, too embarrassed to attend traditional classes, to return to learning. For Mary Sharp, it is the way offenders can continue with learndirect once they are released that is so valuable.

Because tutors from local learndirect centres do the teaching, released offenders can be supported by the same person who taught them in jail, if they stay in the area.

"Wandsworth has many short- stay and remand prisoners, so they might just be starting to learn when they are released," says Mary Sharp. "With learndirect it's so easy for them to pick up the course again anywhere with a computer."

Prisoners are often moved between jails to manage numbers. In the past that would put an abrupt end to their courses. Now, provided they are at one of the other prisons in the scheme, they use a personal code to log on to their "unique learning account" and continue their course.

Asim Mumtaz is the area manager for Next, the training company contracted to take learndirect into Wandsworth. He believes that allowing the prisoners to exercise choice in the way they study is a huge factor in its success.

The initial induction, lasting about one and a half hours, is basically a personal consultation, looking at what the prisoner wants to achieve. Each subsequent session is reviewed and discussed with the tutor, giving the men a feeling that they are being listened to and respected.

"We've had very positive feedback," Mr Mumtaz says. "Our first five learners have just passed their certificates, and the atmosphere is very good. With success, the word begins to spread."

And talking of success, Joe now faces a new set of decisions. Asked what he's doing with the money he earns teaching, Joe laughs. "Paying off the car." Given the 66-mile round trip from Blantyre House each day, it's a sound investment.

All this goes to show how much the learndirect experience - first training, then work - has contributed to returning Joe to a "normal" life. Work, salary, loan repayments - he is already living like millions of other citizens.

"Except," he says with a chuckle, "at night, the car gets parked in about the safest place it'll ever be - inside a prison yard."

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