Wasting potential

Author: | 30 Apr 2019

Wasting prisoners’ potential to change their lives through education: Dame Sally Coates reviewed prison education for the government.

Here’s her verdict for Longford Blog on the newly-introduced reforms that followed her report….

In my own education world, I often hear teachers complaining that ministers in Whitehall move too quickly in introducing reforms without allowing them time to bed in. When it comes to prisons and the Justice Department, however, the opposite seems to be the case.  “Unlocking Potential”, the independent review that I lead into prison education at the request of Michael Gove, the then Justice Secretary, was delivered in May 2016.  Three years on, some of what was recommended is finally starting to trickle down into our jails.

Despite the delay, I welcome it as good news. Too many reports on how to improve our prisons end up gathering dust on shelves in Whitehall – though I can’t help remembering that Michael Gove did promise me, at the public launch of my report, to implement it, “without hesitation, repetition or deviation”.

Governor autonomy: a vital first step

His successors may not have fully honoured that commitment, but giving prison governors autonomy over how their education budget is spent, as is now happening and as was suggested in my report, is a vital first step. Governors have to take ownership of the education that is provided in their prisons – just as, for example, they take responsibility for security – rather than see it as something handed down from Prison Service headquarters.  When I was visiting prisons for my report, I came across governors who didn’t even know which organisation was providing the education in their jail.

In schools, headteachers are held to account for the education they deliver.  That is the strongest lever we have over their performance.  Prison governors need to be subject to similar scrutiny.  Having autonomy over the education budget is the best way to introduce that.  Progress is being made at last, for which two cheers out of three.

How it will work in practice….

It is not a full three because, under the new arrangements, the contracts for delivering education in prisons have been awarded to the same four providers as previously. What I had envisaged in my report was that there would be multiple providers coming into the system.  Now there is nothing wrong with sticking to the same four, if they are all good, but if governors truly are to have autonomy, then they have to be able to change providers if they aren’t satisfied with what is being delivered in their prison.  And I am not convinced that this is going to be easy to achieve under the new system.

In theory it may be possible, but because prisons have grouped together to work with particular providers, if one governor wants to hire and fire teachers, he or she can’t act autonomously but will have to go to the education provider, who employs those teachers.  If the provider then refuses, it is far from clear what happens next, but one thing is for sure. It is not going to be straightforward. Governors have a lot of other pressing matters to cope with rather than tackling poor teaching.

Room for innovation….

There are, I must stress, positive aspects to the new governor autonomy.  The DPS – or Dynamic Purchasing System – that has been introduced will give governors a budget to let out one-year contracts to bring other education providers into the prison to run individual courses. This will incentivise trying out new approaches and increase the range of options on offer to prison learners, especially in vocational subjects that don’t always sit easily in classrooms.

What’s not included?

To see if such innovation is actually delivering, though, we have to be able to monitor and evaluate it. And for that reason I am disappointed that my recommendation that every prisoner should have an individual learning plan – that follows him or her through the system, and allows the education provided to be measured against what has been agreed – still hasn’t become routine.  It remains, I am told, an ambition.  Yet without it how can governors be held to account over whether the education they are using their budgets to provide is genuinely meeting educational needs?

And where, too, is any improvement in IT access to promote education for which I argued strongly? Yes, there are now at best a handful of prisons allowing limited digital access in cells via tablets, but rarely is it set up to be used for learning.  That is such a waste! How effective it could be in encouraging prisoners to use their time in their cell to learn, and all without officers having to be involved to escort them to the education wing or the library?

Without radical reform, prisoners’ huge potential wasted….

My core belief back in 2016 was that good, targeted education is absolutely fundamental in bringing about prisoner rehabilitation.  That is why I argued in my report for a radical overhaul of the education system in prisons. What has now been introduced, however, doesn’t sound anywhere near radical enough. And that means the huge potential of prisoners to change their lives through education is continuing to be wasted.

 

 

 

 

 

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An Unexpected Opportunity

Author: | 24 Apr 2019

Making the most of an unexpected opportunity, Longford scholar Gareth Evans reflects on his internship with a Police and Crime Commissioner….

 

The chance to do a paid internship at the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner’s office in September came late in the day just as I was firming up my summer plans. I didn’t hesitate to jump at the chance. Though, a small part of me worried a policing institution might simply have an ‘ex-con’ in for a few weeks to make the tea. I wouldn’t want to overstate this, but it was a niggle at the back of my mind. I needn’t have given it a second thought.

 

First impressions….

On arrival, I looked around the office in central Birmingham and was asked to decide what I could best help with.  I had been told to expect the organisation to be welcoming and open-minded. I couldn’t have asked for more. As a criminology student, I am determined not only to apply my adverse experiences to academic theory but also to offer positive, real world social value for others. This was my chance.

 

Working together….

Initially, I chose to focus on an ambitious project to improve young offender services, particularly for those in insecure housing after release from prison. To begin with I reviewed the academic literature and local provision.

We know that policies don’t always translate perfectly into services on the ground. We also know that typically those with first-hand experience of policies and their shortcomings, are best placed- but least likely – to be asked for their insights. Basically, I thought it would be a good idea for everyone to work together!

I began to envisage what a more holistic and sustainable intervention could look like. The question was, how could we gain the support of lots of different organisations with their own unique character and purpose? In the process of seeing up-close how social policies are implemented it became clear that each bit of the jigsaw – the NHS, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police- all have their own resource constraints and are driven by often incompatible bureaucratic demands. Regardless of how much people realise things need to change – and everyone I met did- it struck me that breaking out of current practices is not easy.

Beyond scope….

And, so I wrote, in an email:

“…However, the extent of further work needed… I fear, is beyond the scope of my internship.”

But I’m pleased to say the story goes on.

By the end of my four weeks, exceeding expectations for myself, I had devised a housing strategy for young offenders; reviewed and revised the regional Drug Intervention Programme; and contributed to efforts to address gang violence. And what I did matters. For instance, I was delighted when I was then invited to meet the Housing leads for the West-midlands Combined Authority.

My proudest achievement….

However, my proudest achievement from the internship, so far, was involving the real experts, those who from personal experience, know where things feel most difficult. My best memory is of sitting in a meeting with Marie-Claire (of New Leaf C.I.C) an awe-inspiring social entrepreneur who is doing remarkable work to help people make positive changes after prison. The opportunity to make the most of my own and others’ experiences to influence top police commissioning representatives in the West-midlands, felt empowering. It reinforced what is possible when the right people are in the room listening to each other.

And it doesn’t stop there. A flourishing relationship has begun, where the people who ultimately make the decisions about how to address some of our most troubling social concerns have the right information. At the same time, those of us who have lived in, through and been the cause of these issues now have a place in the room.

As a Longford scholar coming towards the final few months of my degree, I hope I have helped honour the trust and the opportunity they and the Police and Crime Commissioner’s Office offered me. I continue to talk with my now friends in Birmingham and am grateful for the opportunity. The work continues and new relationships are being fostered between those who deliver services and those who have direct experience of them.

Hopefully, my placement is a sign of a wider culture change.

Grabbing the opportunity….

And finally, to anyone offered an opportunity like this, I say grab it. It’s an adventure with unexpected opportunities and friendships. You won’t regret it.

 

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Peter Stanford

Introducing you to our new Longford Blog. Join a Big Conversation….

Author: | 25 Mar 2019

You get used to negative responses when you run a prison reform charity. Not always, of course, but on occasion I have had doors shut in my face when talking about the Longford Trust, what we do, and those we work with – shut metaphorically, I should add, in the sense of closed or hostile minds, rather than actually, in most cases.  The experience has been sufficient to give me some small insight into how much worse it must be when what is being shut out is not a charity but yourself, and your future. 

It happens for a whole variety of reasons, but principal among them is that the stereotypes surrounding people who’ve been to prison remain extremely hard to shift. These are stereotypes that deal in generalities rather than individuals, that play on fear rather than fact, that are informed by negative newspaper headlines and crowd-pleasing politicians rather than real people with real lives. 

At the Longford Trust, we have always been about people who have been to prison and are working really hard for a second chance. We try to understand – but not excuse – the many obstacles that stand in their way so that they can be overcome and best of all removed. By launching our new blog on the trust’s website, promoted on our Twitter feed and other social media, we want to extend that work further to give those we work with, our Longford Scholars, a platform to talk about what they are doing, how the world looks from where they are. What works, what doesn’t, and what needs to change. 

The trust’s starting point back in 2002 when we set up was a belief in the power of education to transform lives – something Frank Longford (in whose memory we were established) said throughout his long life on the political front-line, and on newspaper front pages. Over 70 years in the limelight, he also (usually quietly) visited prisoners. Frank Longford said many things but one in particular informs all we do. If you write off any individual’s capacity to reform and rehabilitate themselves, then you write off not just them, but yourself as well.  

So let’s stop doing something so damaging.  Let’s turn to this new platform for discussion about what taking on such a positive challenge means in practical terms. Let’s listen to those who know this pathway inside out, and want to support and encourage others to walk the same road. We hope to inspire those in prison or have been to prison, who might think university and a degree might not be for them, to look at others and think if it might actually be in their grasp. With the right support, could you do it? This Longford Blog offers a platform for scholars – occasionally mentors and other supporters as well- to air concerns and offer solutions about studying when you have been to prison, about ways to make the most of employment opportunities. Alongside the efforts of many others, up to and including some ministers, let’s keep pushing forward with making prison sentences a start not an end. 

If you really care about something and want to blog as part of a big conversation, please let us know. Email: office@longfordtrust.org

Peter Stanford

Director, Longford Trust

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New Longford Scholar, Class of 2018 reflects on the leap from prison to university.

New Longford Scholar, Class of 2018 reflects on the leap from prison to university.

Author: | 25 Mar 2019

From disclosure to unexpected furniture funds, read Saskia’s account….

Going to prison in my mid-twenties was a game-changer. Whilst it would have been easy to spend my entire sentence hiding under my blanket in despair, I knew if I wanted any chance of a normal life I had to make some big changes. You can’t do that if you choose to wallow in self-pity.

So, first things first, I wrote down everything I wanted to achieve in life: successful career, fancy car, big house (hopefully) etc. Then the things that might get in the way of all that: family dramas, a degree, finances. I was able to work out a solution to the first problem, but my goal of returning to education presented a different challenge. I have to be honest, knowing I’d have to declare my criminal record put me off to begin with.

The disclosure decision….

Just a few days before Christmas day in 2017 I was released. I had just over three weeks to select both a course and the universities I’d apply to before the mid-January deadline. With no time to waste I had to decide how I would broach the matter of my conviction. Confused?  I know UCAS (the organisation which oversees all university applications) have since changed the rules on disclosure, so that from applicants from 2019 onwards no longer need to declare their convictions. But back when I applied, the ‘box’ was still in force. Plus, I know the Longford Trust still requires potential scholars to declare their conviction in the interests of transparency.

So I decided to get creative, and used my personal statement as an opportunity to explain how my prison experiences had motivated me to turn my life around. Although I didn’t elaborate on what my conviction was, I did mention the courses and activities I undertook whilst I was in custody. It worked. Despite the fact that I didn’t supply a reference, I got accepted into my first-choice without an interview.

Student first not former prisoner….

Before being made an unconditional offer, I was contacted by my course department who asked for a reference from my probation officer. Most universities do this as part of their safeguarding measures, regardless of the type of conviction. While this extra level of scrutiny can feel a bit uncomfortable, my advice to anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation is not to worry. Universities are keen to get students from all walks of life (yes even ex-prisoners) and I would say as long as you engage with probation never allow the fear of disclosing from stopping you pursue your dreams, otherwise you’ll be running your whole life. And of course, anything you share with the university is kept confidential, so your personal tutors and lecturers are never made aware of your personal circumstances. Which I find to be a good thing as I’d like to be seen as student first rather than as a former prisoner. 

Where could I find the money? …..

With the benefit of hindsight, the easiest part in this whole process was getting in. Once reality hit, I questioned how I could afford it all. I had previously studied a few years ago. That did not result in a degree as I withdrew in my final year, so unfortunately, I was not entitled to a tuition fee loan. This meant I had to come up with £9,250 each year for the next three years. No easy task, only a few months after release. In addition, at the time I was living in emergency accommodation and knew that very shortly I’d be made a permanent offer of housing. Very shortly I’d have to factor in the cost of furnishing my new home as well as managing everyday expenses of food and bills and study materials.

Cue the Longford Trust….

I’d become aware of the Longford Trust during my time in prison after reading the Hardman Directory and did not delay in applying. I knew even if my application was successful, I’d still have to make up the massive shortfall. My first step was researching other educational charities, and I’d recommend reading the Directory of Social Change that contains a list of grants for individuals, available in most libraries. I was able to secure a few grants to assist with the costs of a laptop and books. The Hardman Directory also contains a list of grants for ex-offenders that I also had some success with.

More from universities than you might think….

It’s easy to overlook what the university itself can offer in terms of financial help too. It takes time and digging around. It’s worth doing your homework. My university’s scholarship page was a good source of help. Nearly all universities have a Student Hardship fund for those who experience extra financial difficulties. You can only apply for these additional funds after enrolment and, without doubt, I recommend exploring this avenue. It’s also always worth checking with your university’s Widening Participation department to see if they make discretionary grants. When I finally moved into my new home in the middle of the semester I was given an additional grant – not advertised on the website- that allowed me to purchase the essentials, such as fridge, cooker and bed. How I could I study if I didn’t have anything to sleep on?

So, looking at my own experience, I recommend finding out how much support each university offers to incoming students and use that as a key factor to decide which university to apply for in the first place, and certainly if you’re in the happy position of needing to decide which offer to accept.

How’s it all going now? ….

Here I am a fully-fledged student at a well-respected university, five months into my degree and I couldn’t have made a better choice. I’ve got a few internships lined up for the summer, and feel confident that when I graduate two years down the line that I’ll be able to get the job I want. It’s entirely up to you but in terms of obtaining part-time work while you study, again your university might have more to offer then you expect. If you wish to share your situation with the Widening Participation department there may be jobs on campus that they earmark for you. At the moment I temp through my university. Unlike most employers they don’t require applicants to disclose for most posts. Not only is the additional income helping with my living costs, it’s a good way to build up your CV and network with staff across different departments.

One last piece of advice

My last piece of advice to anyone about to embark on this exciting journey is to plan early. If you need a lot of financial support, remember that a lot of grant-making charities have strict deadlines, so you can’t afford to leave things until the last minute. Be focused. It’s tempting to go to university and get excited about the pub crawls but nearly all graduate employers want to see evidence of high grades and work experience. You can’t afford to leave this until your second year. Be realistic about the challenges you’ll face and find ways to overcome them.

On a final – and perhaps a little contradictory – note, remember to enjoy yourself! Life will change so much over the next 3-4 years and you’ll surprise yourself how much you’ll end up achieving. 

You can find out more about Longford scholarships and Frank awards here.  

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