The 50-language challenge
Sue Saxton, who as Head of Regimes is responsible for a wide range of education, work-based training and other support for the men in HMP Bullwood Hall, spoke to reflect about ESOL provision
Bullwood Hall in Essex is a Category C prison(1) for around 200 adult male foreign nationals who are in the last year of their sentence. It has fulfilled this role only since August 2006; before this it was a prison and YOI for women. The men are all 'of interest' to the Border and Immigration Agency (BIA) who will decide whether, at the end of his sentence, a man should be deported, allowed to stay in this country, or be further detained. Though many prisons in England and Wales hold foreign nationals, Bullwood Hall is one of two that provide only for this group. Typically, there are prisoners from every continent and, at any given time, some 50 first languages are spoken, though the 'top ten' are Arabic, French, Hindi, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Urdu and Vietnamese.
What are the particular challenges that you face in your ESOL work and how have you responded to these?
Even more than in the outside world, each man is unique. Some have been in the UK for years, are orally fluent, have families in the UK, and are familiar with British culture. Others may have been convicted soon after their arrival and speak no English at all, let alone write it. When they arrive, they don't know whether they will be given leave to stay in this country after their sentence, so they don't know what language or other skills they will need on release. Some are with us for a week or so; thers for up to a year. This means that Individual Learning Plans are even more important and that bite-sized chunks of learning are essential. For some, the emphasis is on preparation for life after release. For others, developing the skills they need within the prison is more urgent. For example, men who have no English but are placed in the prison workshops need a crash course in vocabulary relating to health and safety.
When the role of the prison changed in 2006, we had to develop a completely new approach to our work in Skills for Life.
What is your current provision?
We have 10 ESOL classes delivered by Milton Keynes College. Two are Pre-entry level and eight are multilevel Entry (of which two are for spoken English only). Most men are working towards Entry 1 or 2. Men who are assessed at Level 1 and above attend Adult Literacy classes. We also have a substantial amount of outreach work where teachers work one-to-one with men on the wing and in the various work parties in the prison, such as the kitchens, workshops and laundry.
What have you learned from your ESOL work to date?
We learned very quickly that not all Pre-entry learners can learn in a group so we also work one-to-one through outreach. Following initial assessment (for example, in a twomonth period, we received 29 new admissions at pre-entry level) we identify the best way to meet needs. This might be outreach before progressing onto a Pre-entry group or a mixture of both.
At first, we had a problem with accreditation. We needed a form of accreditation that suited the fact that many men were here for a short and unpredictable period. Now, we use the City & Guilds system which provides single modules of assessment that fit our 'bite-size' provision. It is much more motivating for the men to achieve 'little and often'.
Also, the teachers have formed good working relationships with work party staff, so we can integrate language learning into the training context, where the men's poor language skills may hold back the development of their vocational skills. We have put a lot into staff development of colleagues who are not formally qualified as teachers and it is paying off. In partnership with outreach staff, they come up with lots of good ideas. For example, they have made 'language boards' in their workshops, with photos of tools or equipment with English language captions.
We are also proud of the men's high levels of engagement. In December, only 17 of the 184 men were not engaged in learning and skills work of some kind, underpinned by our ESOL provision.
But perhaps the greatest success is our use of RARPA(2). Some staff weren't sure about it at first but the men love it because it values 'distance travelled'. Every bit of progress is a milestone for them and they can achieve recognition of that progress regardless of the time they are here. We have had to unlearn our assumption that target-setting is about accreditation; that is not the be-all and end-all. RARPA has helped us to become even more learner-centred.
(1) A closed prison with emphasis on training
(2) Recognising And Recording Progress and Achievement in non-accredited learning. See www.niace.org.uk/Projects/RARPA/Default.htm