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Hold Offender Learning to account

Paul Phillips is principal and chief executive of Weston College, Weston-super-Mare
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Offender Learning is a crucial necessity in today’s society in that it provides a lifeline – the chance for offenders to gain valuable qualifications that will enable them to enter the world of work when they have completed their sentence.

In my experience many offenders have never been given the chance to succeed or indeed have ever received praise for their educational achievements. Quite recently I was at a prison to present awards – I was most struck by the nervousness of the prisoners as they were waiting to receive their certificates but also their pleasure in being recognised for their successes and potential.

There is sadly another side to the story, one that both the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) need to be answerable to and that is allowing those organisations that are responsible for learning to have a fair chance of doing their job. Quite simply it is clear that the Prison Service is facing its own challenges and often learning is not seen as a priority. Therefore we sadly see learners not released from their cells and other issues identified as a much greater priority than prisoners attending classes. In response, one may say that there are larger priorities but if there are then don’t financially penalise the learning providers. We obviously have to deal with smaller classes and we also have to provide significant extra support to learners, but if learners are unable to attend classes because of the fault of the prison then quite frankly SFA and NOMS cannot hold education providers financially responsible.

Let me take this a stage further and look at the Ofsted criteria for inspecting prisons. Surely there should be one approach for the prison and one for the learning provider? It would seem perfectly logical, but don’t you believe it. The two are interlinked and for what reason? Quite honestly, if the prison is superb and the learning provider poor then you should expect to see grades 1 and 4 and vice-versa but in reality there is far too much dependence in the equation.

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But enough of the negativity: let’s work together to bring some common sense to Offender Learning and have proper and fair accountability and funding. The design of OLASS4 – apart from these anomalies – has brought rigour to learning and achievements in Offender learning and there is real excitement at what can be achieved. In recent years I have seen some fantastic joint ventures between Prison Governors, staff and the learning providers but there is still more to be done and if we can amend the funding regime I believe we will see significant entrepreneurial solutions for learning across the United Kingdom. OLASS4 has blown open the approaches of OLASS3, which in the main were hobbyist and lethargic, and replaced it with a dynamic solution to training and skills achievement. It’s a real ‘management of change’ case study in which real success has been witnessed. Full marks to NOMS and SFA for its introduction.

It’s time to review progress to celebrate the significant achievements. Yes, there will be some independent monitoring boards that are still back in the dark ages but in the main we are succeeding and want to get on the crest of the wave and surf it. But as any top surfer will tell you the conditions have to be ideal. Not many conditions are actually required – just some common sense from the key agencies in regard to equitable funding and methods of quality assurance.

I am a proud advocate of Offender Learning but we need the tweaks to gain the full success. I remain optimistic…

Paul Phillips is principal and chief executive of Weston College, Weston-super-Mare

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