HMP Bullingdon and the POA

Organisational Background

HMP Bullingdon is a category B/C adult male prison located near Bicester in Oxfordshire. Built in 1992, Bullingdon is a fairly modern facility with capacity for around 1,100 inmates. On two occasions during the last decade (2002 & 2004) the prison has been described as England's most overcrowded; the former of these by the POA chairman at the TUC conference. Today the prison offers a range of training, work and educational courses to prisoners. The prison employs around 500 full-time employees and another 200 contract/ part-time workers, with a gender breakdown of 70 -30 male to female.

There are a wide variety of unions recognised, given the diverse range of professions employed. The recognised unions include: the POA (lead union), PCS and NAPO, UNISON, UNITE, GMB, RCN and UCU. A single status partnership agreement is in place for general employment relations matters and monthly meetings are help with management and the POA, although other unions' representatives generally don't attend. The climate of industrial relations is described as being good at the moment, although there was a rocky patch back in 1993-4 and some future tension is predicted by the POA chairman over planned major structural changes.

Union Learning at Bullingdon

The HMP Bullingdon learning centre was set up in April 2009, located within the staff centre next to the canteen outside of the prison walls. The centre is managed by a seconded POA ULR and a learning support worker, supported by an additional 3 ULRs across the prison. The ULRs are all POA members, although there is a recruitment drive for further ULRs from other unions. The seconded staff are part-funded by a POA ULF project and part-funded by the prison. The seconded POA ULR and the POA branch Chairman were the main drivers behind the setting-up of the learning centre, as they had seen how well the POA learning agenda was working at other prisons. This was backed with essential support from the prison governor. The POA provided the furniture and the PCs, whilst the prison converted the room, provided the internet service and purchased the interactive white board, a contribution of around £40k in the first year.

The prison had recently signed a Skills Pledge for all staff to reach NVQ Level 2, and the learning activity initially focussed around SfL literacy, numeracy and ICT. In the first 9 months of activity, the learning centre achieved 40 SfL qualifications (with some progressing from level 1 through to level 3), ULR training courses and intense PETALS courses with 15 learners achieving this qualification. The NVQ level 3 in custodial care is a mandatory qualification for all prison officers, and the learning centre now facilitates the vast majority of this course in partnership with Newcastle College.

Learners and the learning experience

The centre is open to all employees of the prison, including their friends and family and people from the local community. The ULRs are competent in providing IAG, although this is mainly provided by the full-time staff of the centre. Where they can't facilitate the needs of learners, they signpost and arrange with external providers. The experiences reported by learners were all positive, with the literacy, numeracy and IT courses being viewed as particularly beneficial. In particular, demand for basic IT learning has been driven by the introduction of a new electronic system for scheduling hours and booking holidays.

'If I hadn't been able to learn my computer skills here I wouldn't have even been able to book a holiday!' (IT Learner)

Learning for basic skills in literacy and numeracy is flexible to fit around the varied shift patterns of prison staff. While this learning is generally not regarded as job related, and so must be completed in the learners' own time, there are instances where the training manager has authorised paid time-off for this type of learning, where it is seen as providing added value to the organisation. The lower level positions in the prison are changing and involve an increasing amount of record keeping and form filling, so the basic skills learning on offer is helping these employees to keep up to speed with their ever developing roles, and giving them the opportunity to progress in the organisation.

'The literacy and numeracy I have done helps me do my job quicker and better, and now I have the skills to move up to Officer level.' (Literacy & Numeracy Learner)

Business value and sustainability

It is acknowledged that without the ULF funding the centre would not have opened, and without some continued contribution it would be difficult to sustain at current capacity. In order to prepare for this the prison is working with the local Chamber of Commerce and trying to build links with the wider business community to bring in money from external sources.

An agreement has recently been made with a local Tesco store for the learning centre to provide SfL courses for its staff. The intention is now to roll that out nationally in a formal agreement with all 11 POA learning centres.

The real determinant of sustainability lies in the value of the learning centre to the organisation:

'The union funds gave it a push, but a lot of the learning work is necessary to the prison now, so it should be sustainable'. (Head of Learning & Skills)

The SfL courses have reportedly improved the efficient running of the prison in terms of paperwork and communication. The amount of form-filling in the job for prison officers and associated staff has increased in recent years, and this is now done better and faster as a result of the literacy provision. These learning needs were found as a result of the initial SfL assessments, demonstrating that some staff were not entirely capable of performing some of their day-to-day tasks. Furthermore, the prison has recently implemented a new IT system, and, in training staff to use it, IT learning needs have become evident. The learning centre has been of value in up-skilling staff in ICT to the level required for this new prison IT facility.

The value of the learning centre to the prison has also been realised in the more efficient use of training budgets. The learning centre, with its dedicated learning resources, can source courses for the prison more economically, and where they can, they provide standard prison training 'on the doorstep', reducing expenditure on travel and subsistence for the previously external training.

Integration with organisational training practice

The learning centre works closely with the prison around the learning agenda. The learning centre manager, before becoming seconded, was the NVQ manager for staff and prisoners, and still looks after some of this work on an informal basis. With predicted future reductions in prison training personnel, more of this work will be catered for by the learning centre. The prison training manager meets with the union learning team informally on a weekly basis, and more formally every month. Part of her role is now to put prison staff through SfL assessments and where learning needs are identified, direct them to the learning centre.

'The learning centre is a valuable resource, and it's now well integrated in the prison training schemes'. (Training Manager)

The NVQ level 3 in custodial care is now mandatory training for all new prison officers. This is supported by the learning centre where it can. The lead ULR noted how prison training 'is set in stone'. However, some of these requirements are now contracted to the learning centre:

'The facility is used for some of the core organisational training as well – it is fast becoming integrated.' (Lead ULR & Shop Steward)

Business administration NVQs are also supported by the centre, which are not mandatory for any staff, but form a part of the optional training and development programme for the prison. There is, therefore, evidence that the union learning centre is substituting for some of the mandatory training which has always been essential for the prison. Nonetheless, additional learning provided by the centre is equally evident, with SfL, language courses and IT learning, all of which are of benefit to both employees and the organisation. In this 'new start up' learning centre, the resource is very much a partnership between the prison and the ULF, in terms of the initial funding, the staffing, and the current utilisation of the centre as a shared training room and union learning centre.

Learning agreement and learning committee

A national learning agreement is in place between the Prison Service and the POA, and all of the POAs 11 regional learning centres have individual learning agreements in place with the governor of the respective prison hosting a POA centre. Generally these agreements cover the provision of a room for learning, internet access and heating and lighting for the facilities. They tend not to cover any organisational financing or time-off for learners. ULR facility time is given as 6 hours' per week per establishment.

At HMP Bullingdon, the local agreement follows this template, with the prison providing the fully expensed facility in the staff centre. It has also received additional contributions from the prison governor, including an interactive white board. Whilst paid-time off for learners is not covered in the agreement, this is often granted. This release time is more informal, and depends on how relevant the learning is to the job. The training manager, who works closely with the union learning centre, has the authority to grant learners' paid release, and consistently does so for Excel and Word ICT courses.

There is no specific union – management learning committee at Bullingdon. However, the monthly meeting between the POA and management covers learning as a standing agenda item. Furthermore, the training manager has formal monthly meetings with the union learning team.

Barriers and challenges

The learning centre at HMP Bullingdon was delayed in its opening due to a change of governor. While the previous governor was supportive of the union learning agenda, he was unwilling to commit to it just before handing over to his successor. The new governor was equally supportive and the centre went ahead, although this did delay the process by around 8-12 months. Due to the relatively recent opening of the centre, and start-up of the learning agenda at Bullingdon, challenges are evident around advertising, marketing and raising awareness of the opportunities available. The learndirect programmes in particular were mentioned as needing more active promotion.

Learning and Industrial Relations

Both union and management staff reported that there is now a good partnership working with the learning centre, and a climate of consultation around the learning agenda. An environment of greater trust between management and unions was evident, as management have become aware of the 'softer' side of union activity, whilst the union learning centre has benefited from the financial support from prison management:

'Union learning is helping with industrial relations as they (management) can see that unions are not just about militancy.' (Union Learning Representative)

The perception of the union amongst prison staff has been aided by the learning centre, and whilst the union learning offer is open to all employees, and the wider community, new members have reportedly been recruited to the POA as a result of the learning agenda.

Concluding remarks

The HMP Bullingdon POA learning centre is an example of a recently opened facility, shared in cost and use by the union and the prison. The centre offers both additional learning provided by the POA, and is also used for mandatory prison training, which represents both additionality of learning, but also some substitution for existing training such as the NVQ in custodial care. This appears to be a necessary 'trade off' for the development of the facility and the significant financial contributions from the governor, but also contributes towards the integration of union learning into the prison's training and development strategy, and future sustainability of the learning agenda in this organisation.