From Skills for Life to higher learning

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The Highdown Union Learning Centre, situated outside HMP High Down, was set up in conjunction with the Prison Service and the POA union in 2006 and is part of the U-Net unionlearn network of learning centres. It is open to 700 plus staff from the local and surrounding prisons. The Centre offers a variety of courses that are provided for free or at a union discounted rate including Spanish, Deaf Awareness plus various levels of Life Skills including Maths and English.

Lynne Willmer, the Centre Manager, stated that: "When the Learning Centre first opened, staff members were reluctant to admit they had Literacy or Numeracy issues. After the first few learners achieved online certificates and confirmed that learning was nothing like their time at school, there was much more interest in the Learning Centre. The second challenge was to find funding, free courses and training that was geared towards working with prisoners and managing staff stress; an invaluable part of the job."

The Centre has now progressed to provide higher education courses. These courses funded by the employer and union included Preparing to Teach in the Life Long Sector (PTLLS) Level 4. One learner to undertake the course was Robin Willis. He is an Officer Instructor at HMP High Down. Robin started working at High Down in April 1992 as a part time cleaner; became an OSG (Officer Support Grade) and was then promoted to Officer in 2001. Since joining the Prison Service, Robin has made use of the Learning Centre. His progress has reflected the growing range of courses on offer at the centre as his learning has resulted in him gaining Skills for Life (English and IT), a Certificate in Teaching Support (Level 2) and a City and Guilds – Preparing to Teach in the Life Long Sector (PTLLS) Level 4.

Lynne Willmer believes that the HE courses provided have benefited the prison service in a number of ways.

"The benefits are enormous in terms of building staff confidence. Staff members who have up-skilled are more effective when dealing with incidents in the workplace because they have the experience and the knowledge to question bad behaviour, using better communication to defuse and de-escalate situations and they also use the Centre to find ways and methods to deal with stress and further their learning are less likely to be sick off work."

She continued: "Union initiated learning experiences at HE levels have led to individuals engaging in work related training, or in the case of women and BME learners, improving their earning capacity. Equality and Diversity, Race Relations and Equal Opportunities in the workplace have opened the doors to many workers who felt that they did not have the intelligence to go on to achieve a HE qualification. Finally, matching theory to practice and encouraging training up staff members with skills that are relevant to their jobs has strengthened the service we offer."

Benefits to the employer of studying at HE level

Confidence: The benefits are enormous in terms of building staff confidence and staff are eager to help prisoners gain qualification and share their own personal experience of learning, emphasising that it is not easy for everyone and that perseverance does pay off.

Patience: Staff members who have up-skilled are more effective when dealing with incidents in the workplace because they have the experience and the knowledge to question bad behaviour, using better communication to defuse and de-escalate situations. These same staff members also recognise good behaviours and will give praise readily; a factor missing in a lot of prisoner's lives.

Sick Leave: Sick leave is a contentious area but staff members who use the centre to find ways and methods to deal with stress and further their learning are less likely to be sick off work.

Further Training: Union initiated learning experiences at HE levels has led to individuals engaging in work related training, or in the case of women and BME learners, improving their earning capacity. Equality and Diversity, Race Relations and Equal Opportunities in the workplace have opened the doors to many workers who felt that they did not have the intelligence to go on to achieve a HE qualification.

Finally, matching theory to practice and encouraging training up staff members with skills that are relevant to their jobs has strengthened the service we offer.

Governor Dawson stated: "High Down's Learning Centre is a fantastic bonus for me as Governor. It inspires individuals to take responsibility for their own development and enjoy it into the bargain. The Centre plays a key part in giving me happier and more motivated colleagues to work with, as well individuals who are better equipped for the vital public service they deliver."