Weston College is educating inmates at 13 prisons across South West England having won the region’s Offender Learning and Skills Service (Olass) contract. Principal Dr Paul Phillips talks about the challenges he and his staff, not to mention offenders, face.

When we decided to bid for delivery of the Olass for the South West of England, I don’t think any of us realised the challenge we were letting ourselves in for, although simultaneously there was excitement about getting involved in a journey that had a long way to go.

The team we assembled to write the bid comprised a mix of expertise gained from commercial ventures, offender learning and FE.

We were clear from day one that we could do better than some of the existing providers, and we’d experienced the so-called promises of private organisations who failed to deliver on either outcomes or quality.

So we had one key aim — to better the learning opportunities for the prisoners we would meet.

Our presentation was rigorously questioned by members of the Skills Funding Agency, the Prison Service and other offender management representatives.

They wanted proof we could engineer a learning journey, and I felt we could make a massive difference.

So what do you do when you get the contract? Easy — you visit the institutions, gauge what’s going on and effect change.

This isn’t as simple as it sounds, because to succeed you have to embrace every part of prison culture.

In one institution you may meet the governor, in another, a deputy, and in another no one other than your inherited TUPE’d (Transfer of Undertakings — Protection of Employment) staff.

In some prisons there are key links to industry, in others none. Yet offender learning is about providing the key skills needed for employment and progression.

Then there are the physical resources, the need to ensure that teaching rooms and equipment are fit for purpose — if you need an average class size of 12 to break even what do you do if your rooms only seat four? You also need time to be entrepreneurial and to effect a change of mindset — the world of social enterprise beckons and I consider it key to change mindsets and bring about results.

Some might argue cynicism, but I am just being realistic and looking for alternative ways of reaching the goal.

The solution is usually in front of you and some successful social enterprises have originated from previous offenders who, on leaving prison, have become entrepreneurs willing to help solve problems and create solutions for the future.

We are getting there, but I think we underestimated the time it would take and the magnitude of change.

Offender learning is about providing the key skills needed for employment”

I suppose I thought we could make an immediate impact in terms of teaching and learning and although we possibly did, we learned most from the prisons themselves and in particular, the prisoners.

They told us they got a ‘wage’ from working in prison industries, an incentive that many prisons don’t have as far as education goes.

They said they needed the support of prison officers to engage in learning and that learning is experiential, not bookish.

Our approach, therefore, has been to create the learning journey. Progress is variable, but where it works there is noticeable success. All prisons are different and change takes time.

The other point missed was the issue of celebrating success. Success culture is there, albeit massively underdeveloped.

Last month, we started to celebrate the work of the prisons in terms of meeting the Olass aims and many education staff stated they had never come across it before.

Celebrating the achievements of prison staff, education staff and the prisoners themselves is crucial.

Perhaps this article comes across as a jumble of success, trials and tribulations, apathy and brilliance; a fair reflection of what has happened to both myself and my team. We have had to create a robust starting point.

It is not about taking the old methodologies of prison learning and adapting them to Olass – it is about a new agenda of partnership learning and investing for the future from many perspectives. We thought we could make a difference — and we are.

Weston College principal Dr Paul Phillips

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