Lessons from experience in delivering education for imprisoned young learners

With the government having announced plans for secure colleges for young offenders, Paul Phillips uses his experience of delivering adult prison education to outline the issues that will need consideration.
The whole world of offender learning has faced massive change over the last 18 months with the introduction of the OLASS (Offender Learning and Skills Service) 4 approach.

Essentially, that has enabled a much greater focus to be given to the skills agenda and to ensure that prisoners are equipped with the latest skills and expertise to enable progression to secure work when their sentence is completed.

The transition process has not been easy but the approach taken by the government has been highly necessary.

Most recently, the government announced plans for ‘secure colleges’.

At Weston College, we are the offender learning provider for a large number of prisons across the South West and the concept of secure colleges is one that is interesting, but one that also will need great planning for such a model to become successful.

From my perspective as principal, we need to take the lessons from OLASS 4 and look at what has been happening in terms of youth custody, which is currently generally outside our remit.

The key messages from my perspective are that education has got to be the priority and the qualifications on offer must be those that can lead to sustainable employment or progression to higher levels of study.

Are the entrepreneurs of the future out there who can create these secure colleges?

It is also imperative that we recognise that many offenders will either have learning disabilities, special educational needs or mental health needs.

Therefore the funding that follows the prisoners must ensure that they have the additional support for success.

Currently, under OLASS 4 methodologies, albeit for older prisoners, the levels of additional learning support available are significantly below that required.

As the concept paper from government suggests, the secure college must achieve the very best educational provision combined with rigorous security.

If these two parameters can be achieved then there is a real change of taking the free school/academy model and creating an enviable resource for the future.

There is also the need to consider the whole environment that will be needed to impact upon such change.

So are the entrepreneurs of the future out there who can create these secure colleges?

I believe that there is a key solution which must combine the very best of OLASS 4 methodologies with experts in security.

Both these parameters must have equal priority in planning for the future, but equally the whole concept of youth custody needs re-examination.

If the government is serious about these proposals, then it will need to engage with outstanding learning providers with real expertise in the skills agenda.

Similarly, these providers will need to work with organisations who have proven expertise in security.

This is certainly not an easy proposition, but I believe these providers exist.

The paper from the government, entitled transforming youth custody — putting education at the heart of detention, may be the catalyst that we need in this country.

It clearly needs to be thought out in great detail and then of course there is the cost benefit analysis that will be crucial.

The concept will not be cheap, but, as the green paper states, with average cost per place running from £65,000 to £212,000 per annum and with reoffending rates of at least 70 per cent, change is necessary.

The strategies announced are feasible and to be applauded. I do have a caveat however and that is use the experts from the world of FE and others to influence and support these changes.

Dr Paul Phillips OBE, principal, Weston College, Somerset


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  1. Dave Warson

    I think Dr Paul Philips had less than 18 months experience of running a olass contract at the time this article was published. I believe the transition of the olass 4 contract to Weston college from the previous provider was rather messy and to confused, but what do I know?