SkillHUBS – pioneering in prison education reform

29 May 2019

Over the last few years, much has been said about the need for reform in prison education (e.g., the Coates Review, 2016). The logic is that educated inmates are more likely to gain employment and lead productive lives ‘through the gate’, with employed ex-offenders less likely to re-offend. Given the costs of re-offending to the British taxpayer, currently estimated at between £9.5B – £15B a year, that argument is compelling. Equally, considerable evidence supports the ‘amazing transformation’ that education can have as a catalyst for change in the individual, but progress is slow.

The reality is that around 50% of offenders are functionally illiterate, yet in-prison education is limited and inconsistent, not necessarily due to lack of skilled and committed educators. Add to this a near total absence of digital education technologies. The picture across most of Europe is similar.

‘SkillHUBS – upskilling inmates’ is an Erasmus+ funded, transnational project aiming to change this, with L&W a leading partner.

In May, 20 prison educators and other professionals gathered at L&W’s Leicester HQ to engage in an intense five-day SkillHUBS training programme. The ambition is to transform prison education and the lives of offenders through a radical and innovative teaching and learning vocational skills model.

The SkillHUBS model comprises three integrated elements: a methodology for employers’ skills needs research, an Individual Learner Contract and the teaching and learning framework – ‘the Engine’ – based on a co-creative / theory of change-based approach designed for short, informal courses. Programme participants learned how to adapt the model to their contexts.

Asked what they hoped to gain from the week, most wanted new insight and knowledge, to share and learn from others’ experiences, to lay seeds for a developing community of practice. Through a dedicated Slack forum, participants actively contribute and share ideas and experiences, and access all of the materials and resources developed and gathered by the project team.

Programme delivery was facilitated by L&W’s Dr Lesley Crane, supported by Estera Mozina and Zdenka Nanut Planinšek representing two of the project partners. Participants learned about the Engine’s underlying concepts and discussed how these could be applied in practice – all expressed enthusiasm for the model as a radical departure. They learned how to engage with local employers to gain insight into what skills they need so that future courses can be adapted to deliver on those needs; how to implement the ‘Learner Contract’, a key element in the Engine, with learners taking ownership of their learning through self-directed projects. This integrates with the model’s Individual Learner Contract, a publicly shareable record of personal achievement and accomplishment.

The week also included masterclasses on challenges for prison educators; Basic Skills in prison contexts; inmate mentors; and non-directive coaching, with plenty of scope for participants to discuss ideas, share experiences, and engage in group work.

The week has been a tremendous success, with 100% of delegates judging the presenters, guest speakers and the overall programme as excellent or very good. As one participant said: ‘I’ve been in prison education for more than 20 years, and I have never felt so inspired and excited.’

A bonus was the fabulous warm, sunny weather with all delegates taking the opportunity to explore Leicester, its parks, monuments and – of course – pubs!

The project is moving forward with pilots of the SkillHUBS model running in 3 European prison institutions. An international conference is planned for summer 2020 to showcase the results, and this September sees the launch of a public-access SkillHUBS platform through EPALE.

Dr Lesley Crane

For further information please contact Dr Fiona Aldridge, Director for Policy and Research, L&W.