Features: February 1st, 2008

By Jacquie Mutter.

Qualifications are important when offenders re-enter the world of work, but certificates are only given for academic achievement whilst in prison or on probation. This is changing with the Skillstrain project being trialled by the Qualifications Curriculum Authority, who are responsible for accrediting qualifications in colleges and at work. The author describes how many offenders who have acquired learning and skills through a wide range of activities in workshops, industries, libraries, gyms and other areas of the prisons, are now able to receive formal recognition for their achievements. She demonstrates how having achievements recognised is hugely motivating for the offenders and can go a long way in helping them break the cycle of leaving prison and re-offending.

The project also embraces offenders serving community sentences supervised by the National Probation Service, where they can acquire important and useful vocationally-related skills through community-focused activities that can then help boost their employability. For the offenders affected, these new skills although useful because they improve their skills base, are somewhat redundant because they aren’t officially recognised by potential employers.

Trialing the framework

To solve issues such as these a new system is being trialled by the Qualifications Curriculum Authority (QCA), the public body that accredits qualifications in colleges and at work, to explore how best to recognise these valuable skills. The trials of the system, called the Qualification & Credit Framework (QCF), are currently taking place with employers, providers and learners across many industry sectors.

One of these trials is Skillstrain, a Learning and Skills Council (LSC) funded project which is run in partnership with the Open College Network London Region. Skillstrain uses the trialled qualifications to certificate previously un-accredited skills in a range of subjects in six London prisons – Brixton, Wormwood Scrubs, Wandsworth, Holloway, Pentonville and Belmarsh – and the London Probation Service.

At Belmarsh prison, Skillstrain offers offenders who are serving sentences between 3 months and a year, the opportunity to take a course in the construction workshops and gain National Open College Network (NOCN) qualifications. These qualifications are being trialled through the QCF and are made up of small chunks of learning in the form of units in different subject areas, allowing learners to gradually accumulate their units towards a full qualification

The course at Belmarsh is in basic construction (brickwork and multi-skills) and is run in two workshops in the prison over 8 weeks, for 5 hours per day, 5 days a week. The learners are assessed in painting & decorating, tiling, brickwork and carpentry skills and finish with a full qualification, NOCN Level 1 Award for Progression (a general pre-vocational qualification that enables learners to progress onto more vocationally specific qualifications e.g. NVQs). A similar course is also taking place in the multiskills workshops at HMP Wandsworth. A tutor from the Education Department in the prison also works in the workshop one day a week to assist the learners with their literacy and numeracy needs, where required, giving them tasks and assessments to improve their skills.

Flexible approach

In the prison context, where transfers in and out are a daily occurrence, the ability to award small chunks of each qualification at one time reduces the risk of offenders moving on without receiving official certification of the skills they have developed. This flexible approach to accreditation can also provide offender learners with the opportunity of later building on their qualification (or part qualification) in a range of educational providers including FE colleges

The course at Belmarsh has been greeted with enthusiasm by the learners; attendance is high, they are motivated and they enjoy the programme. Many of the learners have never gained qualifications, either at school or since leaving, and have never been encouraged or praised for their efforts. This is reflected in their attitude towards the course and their reaction to succeeding and receiving their certificates. Having achievements recognised is hugely motivating for these offenders and can go a long way in helping them break the cycle of leaving prison and re-offending.

One of the primary aims of the Skillstrain project has been to support offenders in developing employability skills with the idea of progressing them from custody and community sentences into further training and actual employment. The learners’ certificates provide evidence to employers of the skills they have developed, their commitment to learn and their work-readiness.

Preparing for the 2012 Olympics

The Resettlement team at HMP Belmarsh, together with the instructors who deliver the construction course, have linked up with UNOCO Training Services, a well-established and LSC approved training provider. UNOCO have set up an Olympic Training Centre with LSC/ESF (European Social Fund) funding and provide training in construction groundwork.

The UNOCO Olympic Training Centre (www.olympictrainingcentre.co.uk), situated on the edge of the Olympic site and officially opened in November 2007, is set to play an important role in training the 7,000 new construction workers required to build the infrastructure, and the further 12,000 new workers who will prepare and provide the services for the 2012 Olympics.

The first learner to leave HMP Belmarsh with his NOCN certificate from the construction workshops has already been allocated a place on this training opportunity, which leads to a NVQ Level 1 or NVQ Level 2 in Groundwork (the equivalent of GCSE level). At the end of the 8 week course there will be jobs waiting for successful candidates and they also qualify for a Construction Skills Certification Scheme card – a proof of competence in the industry. The learners will be accepted onto the training on the basis of their NOCN certificates, which are a demonstration to any potential provider or employer of their commitment to learn.

The success of the Skillstrain project is clear. Not only because of the positive feedback from instructors and learners themselves, but from the number of successful candidates. Since June 2006, over 600 learners across the six prisons and the probation service have been certificated for their learning and skills and of these, nearly 100 have achieved full qualifications at Entry Level (up to key stage 3) or Level 1 (equivalent to pre GCSE level).

Widening the scope of skillstrain

Future plans for Skillstrain include the roll-out of the qualifications across other spheres of the prison and probation. In HMP Wormwood Scrubs and HMP Wandsworth for example, the chance to get involved in the project and gain recognised qualifications is being looked at for foreign national orderlies. In the libraries at Wandsworth, Pentonville, Wormwood Scrubs and Holloway prisons they are considering courses in customer service skills and leadership skills and in the gardens of Wormwood Scrubs and Wandsworth prisons courses in maintenance and container planting are in development.

The Skillstrain project has really opened up the possibility for offenders in London to make the most of the opportunities available to them whilst they are in prison or on probation. Having the flexibility to build up qualifications over time, which the new Qualifications and Credit Framework offers, means that many of those learners who in the past would have developed new skills and not received recognition and certification can now take something positive and useful out of their experience, making them more employable and helping stop the cycle of re-offending.

Jacquie Mutter is Director of Curriculum & Development at the Open College Network London Region.

The Qualification Curriculum Authority
The QCA maintains and develops the national curriculum and associated assessments, tests and examinations as well as accrediting qualifications in colleges and at work. It also regulates awarding bodies and exams to ensure they are fit for purpose. For more information visit: www.qca.org.uk.

The Qualifications and Credit Framework
For more information on the QCF, details on taking part in the trials and the planned consultation on the future of the reform, visit: www.qca.org.uk/qcf.

Open College Network London Region
OCNLR is part of the leading credit-based awarding body in the UK, the National Open College Network (NOCN) and aims to widen participation in and access to high quality and flexible education, training and learning, to promote social inclusion and to ensure that learner achievement is recognised, valued and understood through a national framework of accreditation. More information can be found at: www.ocnle.org.uk.