As millions of people around the world mourn the death of an extraordinary leader, the first black president of South Africa and a man who campaigned tirelessly for an end to apartheid, I would like to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela as a passionate advocate for education.

Learning featured strongly throughout Mandela's life: from being the first in his family to be sent to school, at the age of 7; to going to college at 19 and attending the only black university in South Africa; studying at night for a bachelor's degree through a correspondence course, while working as a clerk at a law firm; doing law studies at the University of Witwatersrand; to finally completing his law degree near the end of his time in prison.

Having studied geography, history, British culture, English, social anthropology, politics, administration and Roman Dutch Law at college and university, during his imprisonment Mandela found inspiration from the "Complete Works of Shakespeare", which became known as the "Robben Island Bible". He initiated the "University of Robben Island", encouraging prisoners to lecture on their own areas of expertise and debate a range of topics. As well as Islam, he studied Afrikaans, to connect with and influence his warders.

I visited Robben Island during a visit to South Africa in 2000, when I was working for the Learning and Skills Council and had responsibility for Beacon colleges and providers in England. At the request of SAQA (the South African Qualification Authority), I met community and education workers to exchange ideas and practice, sharing details about how further education and qualifications worked in England, and how we worked to develop quality and staffing capacity.

Their perspective influenced our thinking about how sharing practice as a key component of being excellent should be considered a criterion for Beacon status in England. Excellence in education cannot be an island, because helping people across the spectrum achieve their aspirations is integral to excelling in our practice.

Mandela's strong belief in education for the benefit of all and as a powerful vehicle for justice was reflected in the post-apartheid government's priorities. These included increasing the numbers of qualified teachers and developing skills for the economy through investing in further education. By integrating equality principles and competences into every qualification, SAQA has been an inspiration for other qualification bodies around the world.

The establishment of the Nelson Mandela Institute for Education and Rural Development in 2007 was the realisation of a long dream for Mandela. At its launch, he said, "There can be no contentment for any of us when there are children, millions of children, who do not receive an education that provides them with dignity and honour and allows them to live their lives to the full. It is not beyond our power to create a world in which all children have access to a good education. Those who do not believe this have small imaginations."

Given his own record of lifelong learning, Mandela's aspirations for people of all ages would definitely have extended to adult learners in prison.

In her inaugural speech as a patron of IfL in May this year, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC said that "every day a prisoner is not learning is a day wasted". Expert teachers and trainers help prisoners break the cycle of reoffending, realise their talents and put these to good use in employment and in their communities when they are released.

This week, as South Africans and others celebrate the life and influence of a man who made the transition from prisoner to president, it is fitting that we examine offender learning in our own country.

IfL is one of 16 members of the Prisoners Learning Alliance (PLA), which published a national report yesterday highlighting the benefits of putting education at the centre of rehabilitation reforms, to reduce crime and make prisons safer. The PLA's letter to the justice secretary includes this: "Learning in prison works. We see it first-hand every day in our organisations working with learners in prison; it is backed up by the research and most powerfully, by the people who use education as their route out of offending."

Mandela said that education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world. His vision of a better world for all through education is a torch we must and do carry together.

Toni Fazaeli is the chief executive of the Institute for Learning (IfL), the professional body for teachers, trainers, tutors and student teachers across the further education and skills sector

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