Feature: How Milton Keynes College’s prison education put one inmate on the path to his dreams

Milton Keynes College
Milton Keynes College
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MILTON Keynes College Student of the Year, Luke is a softly-spoken, articulate twenty-one year old.

Three years ago he was involved in a brawl. A man’s wallet was taken and Luke was convicted of robbery by way of joint enterprise and received a thirty month sentence.

He says he was well brought up in a respectable middle-class household and had always hoped to become a teacher like his mother.

In court and when first in a young offenders institution he says all he could think about was the shame he had inflicted on his family and the certainty that he would never fulfil his dream.

“I was terribly depressed for three or four months as the realisation dawned of what I had done and what the repercussions of that act were. I felt like I’d let my family down so much and I was certain I had completely blown my chances of the kind of life I wanted,” he said.

“There was nobody to blame but me and absolutely no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Three years after the events which changed his life Luke is well on the way to achieving that dream after all, thanks in no small part to the skills and commitment of the people behind the Offender Learning Programme run by Milton Keynes College.

The College is currently contracted by the Skills Funding Agency to deliver education in 12 prisons including HMP Bedford and HMP Onley.

In the new round of contracting, the skills Agency announced its intention to award contracts for the Offender Learning and Skills Service to Milton Keynes College in 35 prisons across the East Midlands, West Midlands and South Central, subject to contract.

The College is one of the most experienced in the field having been involved in the successful delivery of Offender Learning for twenty years.

Sally Alexander, who has recently been promoted to Executive Director of Offender Learning at the College, said: “This is not just about behaving in a humane way to people in prison.

“The data shows that people who receive the kind of training we offer while serving their sentences are three times less likely to reoffend. If you put it in monetary terms there is no question that society benefits as much as the individuals being helped.

“By improving people’s skills we can help them to resettle in the community when they’re released; more than that, for some people it means they can settle in the community properly for the first time. It’s all about reducing reoffending, improving skills and preparing people for employment.”

Many of the offenders are lacking very basic English and Maths. Literacy, numeracy and IT skills are among the most popular courses offered. They learn how to cooperate with other people, communication, confidence-building and general behavioural skills as well.

“We teach them how to fill in a job application form for example, but that’s of no use unless they can use a computer because these days so many jobs can only be applied for online.

“There is proper classroom discipline, just as there would be on the outside. They have to be punctual, to listen, all those things we pick up in school which enable us to work with others.”

When Luke first came across the staff from Milton Keynes he found it hard to believe them when they said he could still become a teacher if he was prepared to work at it. He started mentoring other offenders in numeracy and literacy and began a course in Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector (PTLLS).

“One lady in particular, Christine Edmondston, was just an inspiration,” he said.

“She broke down all the barriers with me and with the institution to get me going where I wanted to go. She worked so hard for me and showed me I could make a good thing out of a bad thing.”

Sally said: “We approach students in prison in exactly the same way as we would if they were here at the College.

“It’s only the environment and the way in which they have come to the training which is different. In both cases we look at the needs of the people involved and also those of the community at large.

“In other words we’re trying to provide skills which are going to be relevant in the jobs market and make people more employable. The qualifications received are exactly the same, inside or out.

“With our experience we’re ready and willing to deal with a wide range of individuals, circumstances and institutions.”

Those skills go way beyond reading and writing; courses taken by offenders include construction, brick-laying, painting and decorating. There are engineering programmes, art & design, car mechanics, horticulture and even recycling and waste management.

The college has proven its worth and received some glowing reports from Ofsted at various institutions where they operate, regularly being described as providing, “good achievement in skills for life.. good progression in ICT, high standards of work.. and good operational management.”

At HM Prison Onley, “teaching and learning is good, with good pass rates, accurate self assessment and strong leadership and management.”

For Luke it was so much more than that, particularly the fact that someone else was willing to push and help him to believe he could do something worthwhile which made the difference.

Sally added: “He managed to really change his mind set. At the outset he was totally withdrawn but education has brought him out of himself and made him more positive about the future.

“We’re all very proud of him because he conducts himself so well. He fully deserves to have won the Offender Learning Student of the Year Award and he has come to see he really can become a teacher.”

Since his early release on licence in April, Luke has been wearing a tag and is subject to all the usual restrictions placed on people in his position.

However, that has not stopped him forging ahead with his plans. He is gearing up to take his teaching qualification which he plans to take at his local college in Runcorn in Cheshire.

Meanwhile he has shown he has the coaching bug having taken charge of a women’s football team. He wants to go on to teach Music and possibly Maths.

“I’ve played in a number of bands and music is very much my passion,” he said.

“I’m self-taught on piano and drums and play a bit of guitar but I know I’m unlikely to land a fulltime job in teaching adults until my conviction’s spent in 2016.

“I can’t see anyone employing me until then and I don’t blame them. If I were them I’d want to see that clean record, to see proof that I can be relied upon. I am where I am because of my own actions and I can never apologise enough.

“Alcohol was involved and I have completely given up drinking as a result. If I’d have been sober I know I would have made a different decision that night.”

That said, he is determined to do everything he can to put his life squarely back on the rails. His mother is proud of him again for his efforts and he feels like he has much for which to be thankful to Milton Keynes College for his second chance.

“It was all about the staff who helped me realise that no matter how bad things get you can always turn them around.

“It may be hard but you can do it and the rewards are just limitless.”

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