Learning Account

Keith Siner is education co-ordinator at Sudbury Open Prison in Derbyshire
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The Independent Online
"If you just take a lifer down to the gate when it's time for him to leave prison, and say, `That's it' - that would be disastrous, totally irresponsible to the man and to society."

Keith Siner, education co-ordinator at Sudbury Open Prison in Derbyshire, is talking about why he does his job. During their time in Sudbury, prisoners may take an array of courses, ranging from basic literacy to PhDs. Last week eight men took A-level law.

After their first 10 weeks, spent in the prison workshops, prisoners may choose to spend 30 hours a week on an educational programme. Part- time study is also on offer.

They have to be keen. Prisoners who want to study are paid less than those who continue to make shoes and do carpentry in the workshop.

But many are highly motivated. Mr Siner says: "Some of them are aware that they got it wrong, and they want to make constructive use of their time. They are looking to the future and how they are going to earn a living."

In a prison which emphasises the importance of rehabilitation, it is part of his job to question them about their plans when they leave.

Those who sign up for courses negotiate a timetable with their personal tutor before both sign a charter, committing themselves to the work.

Mr Siner and his eight full-time and 20 part-time staff are employed by Derby Tertiary College: Wilmorton, to run courses tailored to prisoners' needs.

There are basic literacy and numeracy courses which have the quality mark of the Basic Skills Agency. There are also business studies courses, including financial decision-making and marketing, and leading to vocational qualifications.

Mr Siner says: "Some of these guys are here because they were involved in financial problems. They are entrepreneurial but have no grounding at all in proper finance."

There are access courses to pave the way to higher education and a City and Guilds teaching studies certificate. They can get a certificate of professional competence in transport studies, or one from the RSA in health and hygiene.

One thing leads to another. A man who did the teaching studies course decided he would like to study law; hence the A-levels in law.

Not all the courses involve qualifications. There is survival cookery, for example. "Often their marriages have broken up and they will need to fend for themselves when they leave," Mr Siner says. "We want to encourage them to stand on their own feet. Prison teaches you to do the opposite."

Drama is provided by an associate director of Derby Playhouse. Current affairs is taught as a way of keeping those serving long sentences in touch with the world. GCSEs are not on offer, because they are too "schoolish" to be attractive.

The most ambitious students have to study outside the prison. At present there is one PhD student, and two who are studying for master's degrees. All were carefully assessed before they were allowed to embark on their studies.

What's in it for Mr Siner? He quotes a letter he received last year from a former prisoner who had just been awarded an honours degree, and was about to embark on university teaching and a master's degree. "Not bad," he wrote, "for someone who was kicked out of education when I was 15".