Putting learners first with the POA

Put your learners first. That was Alison Manion’s mantra when she used to manage a POA learning centre. And it’s still the light that guides her today in her role as acting project manager of POA Learning.

Alison and POA learners

Way back in 2007, when Alison was managing the POA learning centre at Hatfield Young Offenders Institution, someone from the local community showed up who was the definition of a reluctant learner.

Very apprehensive because of his bad memories of school, Scott Close had needed a lot of persuading by one of Alison’s union learners to get him there. POA Learning has always opened its doors to friends and family of POA members and local communities as well as all prison and secure hospital employees.

Because she’s always believed in putting her learners first, Alison knew exactly how to put Scott at ease.

Scott remembered:

I was made to feel welcome and valued.”

Within a couple of days, Scott had enrolled on his first course and went on to complete Level 2 qualifications in English, maths and IT that helped him progress to A Level ICT at the local college.

Scott added:

Alison and the rest of the staff at the learning centre were extremely flexible and allowed me to access my learning around my work and childcare commitments.”

After volunteering at the centre for a couple of years and completing his Level 5 Certificate in Education there, Scott had all the qualifications and experience he needed to apply for a learner support post in 2009. Not only did he get that job, Scott later won promotion to Alison’s old role of centre manager.

Scott said:

Without POA Learning, I would not be where I am today.”

And all because Alison’s always put her learners first.

Hatfield is one of the eight regional centres that are the core of the POA Learning project, and where the majority of the 18-strong team of learner support workers and centre managers work.

The others are in Dartmoor (Devon), Eastchurch (Kent), Full Sutton (York), the Isle of Wight, Maghull (Liverpool), Newbold Revel (Warwickshire) and Nottingham.

Alison explained:

The regional centres are where our breadand-butter work is.”

That’s where the staff work every day delivering functional skills courses themselves, as well as taking part in the wellbeing days the Prison Service offer their staff and building up links with other establishments.”

In addition to the regional centres, the project runs 40-plus link centres that help promote learning opportunities across the Prison Service.

As well as English, maths and IT, the regional centres offer learners the chance to improve their awareness of a range of issues including mental health, dyslexia, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The project is also supporting apprentices (new starters and existing staff) as the Prison Service gradually expands its apprenticeship programme. In addition, with the help of a successful innovation bid to the ULF, the project launched an Apprenticeship Support Network on the Isle of Wight earlier this year, to offer support and guidance to apprentices in any sector on the island, protecting them from exploitation and making them aware of their workplace rights.

POA Learning also offers an expanding portfolio of distance-learning opportunities, its partnership with The Skills Network enabling the project to offer accredited Level 2 courses including business and leadership, childcare and education, health and social care, retail and hospitality and public services.

As is the case in any sector, some establishments engage more than others, but in general, progress is in the right direction. Alison says: 

We’ve reached the stage now where there’s more establishments that do engage with us than don’t at the moment.”

 At national level, the hard work the project has undertaken to develop a positive partnership with the Prison Service is also paying off.

Alison said:

The relationship we have now is brilliant, it’s probably the best it’s been and a lot of that is due to Brett Stringer, the Skills for Life Manager, who’s based at the Prison Service College at Newbold Revel: we have a really good relationship and Brett promotes us wherever he can.”

Brett himself says that the partnership between the service’s learning and development team and POA Learning helps both sides reach more learners.

Brett explains:

Over the past three or four years, we’ve forged a really strong relationship with POA Learning because by partnering with each other, we’re able to help more and more people – it’s a fantastic opportunity to get to the wider community of the service as a whole.”

The main challenge for Alison and her team is securing time off for staff to learn. Alison said:

Time out for learning is the major challenge, which I’m sure is the case everywhere, not just in the Prison Service.”

“People are interested in learning and want to do this for their own development: every day I get emails from members of staff in establishments across the country who want to be signposted to learning they can do – and not because they’ve been told they need to but because they want to, which is a testament to the way staff want to progress their own development.”

Working with her brilliant team and helping members return to learning are the two elements of her job that offer the greatest fulfilment for Alison. Alison said:

Working with the team I’ve got gives me great satisfaction: they’re all absolutely fantastic and as passionate about learning as I’d like to think I still am even after all these years.”

And helping people get back into learning when they may have had a bad experience before, helping them overcome that so they can then aspire to whatever they want to do and whatever they want to be in life, that gives me great satisfaction.”

Fifteen years since she started managing Hatfield regional learning centre, Alison is still putting her learners first.


This story first appeared in the Spring 2020 Learning Rep e-Magazine – download your copy free today.