Prisons came under fire in a speech by Ofsted’s FE and skills director Matthew Coffey, who pointed out how not one of the 78 prisons inspected since 2009 had been graded as outstanding. His criticisms held little, if anything, for Dr Paul Philips to disagree with.
My own college won a contract to deliver offender learning just last year and this coincided with the change from Offender Learning and Skills Service (Olass) 3 methodology to Olass 4.
The changes were dramatic and moved teaching and learning onto a level playing field with FE.
Simultaneously, the whole issue of ‘through the gate’ activity was examined to ensure that offenders were able and ready for work when they completed their sentences, with appropriate qualifications and a real chance of entering the work force.
But the challenges are great because success is dependent on a significant number of parameters.
If I start with the teaching and learning angle then it is imperative that learners are stretched and challenged, and work to develop skills in our staff is well underway.
In quite a few cases we have inherited brilliant, dynamic individuals who have a real focus on developing learners to achieve their potential.
In others, it is like stepping back to the FE world of the 1980s, so there is plenty of work to be done.
Teaching and learning is the focus, but for it to happen all the other parts of the jigsaw need to be in place.
It is essential that prisoners are released from their cells to attend on time, it is imperative that the prison governor and his or her team are equally enthused about offender learning and, simultaneously, we must ensure that we have the resources to develop state-of-the-art learning.
For obvious reasons technology is not always at the forefront of prison resources.
The biggest issue from my perspective is that of supporting prisoners in learning. One should not underestimate the level of additional support that prisons need to succeed.
Sadly, many of them have not had anywhere near the opportunities in life that we have been privileged to receive.
There is a need to invest in this particular area of work if we are to reap the benefits.
In the first year of our contract we were allocated around 5 per cent of our overall budget for additional support, some £600,000 — we used £1.2m just to stand still.
Now, in the second year of our contract we are not allowed to use more of this type of money than the previous year.
Our experience is that only 20 per cent of offenders disclose that they have a learning difficulty and furthermore there is no money to develop strategies to employ and train staff with specialist skills, strategies and technologies that are needed to address the challenges of these complex learners once they are in main education.
I am passionate about offender learning and regularly challenge the Skills Funding Agency [SFA] and others on providing resources to make this area of provision outstanding.
We are nevertheless sadly dealing with a large hidden disability in mental health across these learners which does impact upon concentration span and communication.
I find it astonishing that this issue is well-researched and known about within the prison estate, but is largely ignored through educational reform.
Key data indicates that more than 70 per cent of prisoners have mental health problems (Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, 2006).
So in response to Mr Coffey’s comments, I cannot actually disagree — we do need more accountability by prison establishments, we do need more attention to maths and English and we do need to rapidly improve teaching and learning.
Equally I already have some prisons who are exemplary in every respect and are good, journeying to outstanding. In others, the task will be bigger.
Putting it into context, Ofsted needs to influence government to invest in this key area of work and recognise the learning support needs.
Let us hope Ofsted, the SFA, the prison regime and FE work together with central government to respond robustly. We are not complacent, we do need investment.
Dr Paul Philips OBE, principal, Weston College, North Somerset