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In the context of the responsibility for the funding and delivery of offender learning moving to the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), it meant all sorts of structural changes. One of the factors is that women are such a small proportion of offenders in custody and they are also a small proportion of offenders in the community. So in the thinking-through of the organisation of the transfer, it has been transferred so that it is organised via the nine LSC regions.

However, because there are only 17 or 18 women’s custodial institutions, they are scattered throughout the country. And in order that women are allocated to the prisons that have the appropriate role, they could be anywhere. So while the curriculum offering is planned region by region, for women, their experience and their moving around the system is organised nationally. There are a number of indirect consequences that have an impact on learning, and that is one of them.

Not intentionally, but through the overwhelming majority of the 94% of prisoners being male, the default thinking is about male prisoners rather than female prisoners. In terms of the women themselves, this led to the LSC thinking that it might be useful to commission some research actually looking at what the particular issues for women that affected their learning and skills were. We found that some of the particular differences are to do with the characteristics of female offenders; the range of higher proportion of domestic and family abuse, mental health, the patterns of drug and alcohol misuse, the lower self-esteem and confidence, and then also, a whole set of responsibilities. Using an example of a woman I interviewed in Holloway, the question arose: “Who is going to get Mum’s lunch?” because she was her mother’s carer. There was an immediate sense of what will happen to the rest of the family unit.

When men go into custody, it may well be that if they are in a joint household rather than living singly, there is somebody else who can pick up the pieces and keep the household going.

In terms of the impact to the structure of provision, it means that journeys to visit women in prison are likely to be longer, and it is also the case that men are less likely to take their children to visit their mothers, than women are to visit their fathers. Another point is that a woman’s mindset is still in trying to manage the household from inside and still keep things going, whereas for men, there isn”t that sense.

If you put all of that together with the fact that women may well be taking drugs, they may be feeling huge anxiety, shame and guilt when they are first admitted, the impact on them in terms of addressing learning plans is quite major. One of the pieces of thinking was that when women come in and they undergo detox, it may not be possible to do an individual learning plan, because they may need to get their heads and bodies straight first. And yet, there is quite a bit of pressure to meet targets in terms of assessing learning needs even for short stay prisoners, so we get this kind of conflicting pressure.

A general pattern builds up to suggest that at the beginning, it is very difficult ““ as women settle, you begin to get some advantages. Some of the earlier thinking was geared to sorting out the family at home.

In terms of priorities, for women coming to the end of their sentence, the priority will still be the need for accommodation, and if they have dependents, accommodation so that they could get their kids back. This is a complicated factor in terms of constraints that are less likely to be there for men.

There are still things which act as quite powerful motivators for learning and one of them is being able to understand IT, or being able to improve literacy and numeracy to help with homework, or even to be able to communicate. There is a sense that embedded learning, particularly if it links to the things that are priorities for women, will be valuable. But there can be a complication there because of the separation of different funding streams. So the LSC pays for learning, but it may be that there are other things like parenting support or anger management paid for by other agencies.

Probably, what is needed is flexibility such that it is possible to blend different funding sources, or such that the funding streams don”t get in the way of being able to provide a more holistic learning experience.

When it comes the community, there isn”t separate provision for offenders, but there are quite a few voluntary sector women-only projects that have high proportions of offenders learning within them. Mixed provision is ok, but it has its drawbacks, partly because women will be in the minority, and partly because of the history of abuse issues.

Elizabeth Walker, Research Manager, Learning and Skills Network.

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Related FE News articles:

Women Prisoners Faced With Barriers to Learning – 04/10/06

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