Prison provision: coping with increasing demand
Jo Fisher, Jackie Harvey and Judy Fitt spell out the challenges posed by working with ESOL learners in prisons
London's prison population includes a large proportion of foreign nationals (up to 40% in some cases). Dealing with issues relating to English as a second or other language is therefore a high priority. There is a huge diversity of languages among offenders and widely varying levels of English language skills, with the majority at a basic level.
The primary aim of ESOL provision is to equip learners with the English they need to operate effectively within the prison. At the same time, they should be helped to achieve formal qualifications. The pressure of numbers continually arriving adds a logistical dimension to the design and management of ESOL provision; we aim to minimise waiting lists for classes and ensure that all incoming prisoners are integrated into the system as quickly as possible.
Addressing these needs is a daily task for those responsible for induction, education and training, and delivery of work regimes in custodial settings. In our experience, successful strategies include the following.
Devising a prison-related syllabus, based on the Adult ESOL Curriculum but using language, topics, functions and grammar relevant to the prison environment in order to enable integration, including access to prison services, work areas and other classes in Education.
Developing authentic prison-related materials to support this syllabus (eg 'Skills for prison life')including selfstudy materials for those unable to attend classes.
In response to the fast turnover of learners in remand prisons, the syllabus is made up of self-ontained classes to enable all learners, new and continuing, to learn something in each class.
Providing additional language support to enable ESOL learners to access vocational training through embedded learning. This includes language materials, classroom support, and ESOL embedded in vocational syllabuses (eg in Holloway, ESOL BICS (British Institute of Cleaning Sciences), ESOL Cookery, ESOL Literacy and ESOL Computer classes; ESOL Numeracy provision is being planned).
Ensuring flexible provision (with its funding implications) to respond to sudden changes, eg a sudden increase in numbers of learners, or a sudden influx of a particular language group (eg in Holloway, Chinese speakers and, currently, Roma speakers) with widely varying levels of motivation.
Providing outreach sessions (short one-to-one sessions outside the Education Department). These have enabled women working full-time in the prison workshops to pass exams and have also identified special learning needs.
Providing welfare services specifically for foreign nationals, such as the female prisoners' welfare project Hibiscus, to which teachers can refer learners.
In Wandsworth, representatives from the Education Department attend the weekly meetings of the foreign national group, and the foreign national prisoner representatives are being trained to seek out men who are not on the Education Department's lists.
Also in Wandsworth, the prison authorities are buying dictaphones and tapes to enable new prisoners to start learning some English while waiting for a place in a class. Pressing issues
While the strategies described above are addressing the need to a large extent, there are some pressing issues.
Numbers and funding
The large increase in numbers has a ripple effect on areas other than ESOL classes. These include: the library, where there is a need for more dictionaries and foreign language books; other classes, where ESOL learners may dominate; demands for translation and interpreting; other prison activities.
There is a need for responsive and flexible funding for additional classes to meet increased numbers, including embedded learning and language support.
There is also a need for funds for new classes to respond to the specific needs of a language/ethnic group, eg the non-literacy of many Roma women.
Non-English speakers must be appropriately placed in education and training; we must not make assumptions about what is in their best interests. Some non-English speakers do not see ESOL classes as a priority, however much we may feel the classes are in their best interests. These learners can disrupt classes and affect the learning of other, often very keen, learners. Women who do not want to learn English and who attend classes only because they are paid to do so, or to speak with their friends, often respond very well to alternatives, eg ESOL-supported training and work.
Provision for interpreting and translating needs to be improved.
Initial assessment of language needs should also identify learners with other special needs such as learning difficulties, disability, mental health, general health (many of our learners from developing countries have general health problems). More one-to-one provision for such learners is needed. These issues should be addressed in liaison with all our partners in the Offender Learning and Skills Service (OLASS).
We need the exam boards to be more flexible in their enrolment procedures and
in the content of exams. Skills for Life focuses on living in Britain. Many of
our learners will be deported and don't need to know about the NHS, children's
schools etc. In addition, learners who have progressed from pre-Entry to Entry
1 exams have not followed a 'Living in Britain' syllabus and therefore find the
content of the exam difficult. In terms of enrolling for exams, while we have
managed to do Cambridge SfL Reading and Writing, the process for the Speaking
and Listening (involving named learners, six weeks' notice, Living in Britain)
means we can't offer these exams, though many of our longer-term
learners would like to do them.
Training and recruitment
All prison staff and teachers should be trained in language awareness and the use of simple English in instructions, prison signs and notices etc. It is difficult to find suitably qualified and skilled ESOL teachers. This is aggravated by the fact that we depend on sessional staff who can receive better rates of pay in other educational settings including that of the Lead Provider FE Colleges, where they can also work longer hours, unrestricted by prison regimes.
Jo Fisher is ESOL Coordinator and Jackie Harvey is Head of Learning and Skills at HMP and YOI Holloway. Judi Fitt is Head of Education at HMP Wandsworth