Unlocking their hidden potential

25th February 2005 at 00:00
They may be locked up, but the inmates at a Norwich prison are not locked out of learning thanks to Ben Butler, a tutor whose work has helped reduce re-offending

Winning a STAR Award has brought far more than just a pat on the back for Ben Butler. It has raised the profile of prison education in his area.

Ben is a 52-year-old English and maths lecturer seconded from City College, Norwich, to work with inmates. Recruitment into prison education had been slow, but publicity about his award has brought a sea change. "We have had half a dozen applicants and four successful appointments from college staff to come to work in the prison," he says.

In October he walked up the red carpet to collect his trophy after winning Offender Tutor of the Year. The award recognises his pro-active approach to education at Her Majesty's Prison Norwich. Since 1990 he has helped countless inmates, from improving their basic skills and employability, to working for Open University degrees.

But rather than waiting for learners to come through his door, Ben goes and works among them on the prison landings. "I'm not based in a workshop or a classroom. I go out into the prison proper from the education block and work on the landings, with the consent of officers and security, to bring education to people who wouldn't normally participate. I go into the laundry, the print shop or the kitchens. I have even held Open University tutorials in the gym."

His approach has helped the prison's education department exceed its key performance targets for basic skills. Of the 4,000 inmates who go through HMP Norwich each year, around a third have poor basic skills. "There's a huge need there because of their perception that education is a challenge for them," he says. "We have turned it around, and I now go in pursuit of them."

City College Norwich has made a big commitment to prison education. It has contracts to provide education in 10 prisons in East Anglia, ranging from maximum security Whitemoor, in Cambridgeshire, to the women's prison Bullwood Hall, in Essex.

Ben comes from a family of teachers, but he tried to resist the lure of education. His varied early career included training for the priesthood and a stint as a psychiatric nurse. His move into adult education came after he worked as a train driver and encountered low literacy levels among staff.

"There was a guard on the back of the train whose wages I used to have to sign for. We built up a relationship and I tried in a clumsy way to teach him, but I didn't have the skills or the insight," he says.

Today his work at HMP Norwich helps the men prepare for employment in life beyond the prison gate, contributing to a reduction in recidivism. Using information on local skill needs from outside agencies such as Connexions and Jobcentre Plus, the prison offers a range of courses. This year it is introducing plastering, bricklaying and painting and decorating.

Ben also won praise from judges for his work with prison officers, helping them to improve their own skills and gain promotion. He holds surgeries in the prison canteen to give advice and guidance on education and training for prison officers and their partners.

A spokesman for City College, Norwich said: "Naturally we are very pleased that the important work of tutors such as Ben is being recognised on a national stage. Ben's award has also received coverage in the local media, but I think it is too early to say if there has been a direct knock-on effect in terms of applications for vacancies.

"However, we are sure that the publicity has raised the profile of this role and that it will encourage other tutors to want to work in the demanding but rewarding environment that is modern education in offender learning and skills."

STAR AWARD WINNER

Name: Ben Butler. Job: English and maths lecturer at Her Majesty's Prison, Norwich. Winning category: Offender Tutor of the Year, sponsored by the Association of Colleges

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