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Going straight: The ex-convict signing up other prisoners for degrees

An amazing two-thirds of inmates emerge from jail to reoffend but an experiment in Buckinghamshire shows what happens when you offer them higher education. Lucy Hodges goes inside to see for herself

Sven is a softly-spoken man of 34 with a friendly, open face and winning manners, the sort of person you would trust with your darkest secrets. So it's a surprise to discover that he is in Springhill Prison serving a 10-year sentence for conspiracy to supply drugs.

But, like some other prisoners at this unusual open prison in Buckinghamshire, Sven has been using his long hours inside wisely. Now in the final year of his sentence, he is getting ready for release by studying for a two-year foundation degree in business management at Buckinghamshire New University and working at a training company in Aylesbury.

"You need to use your time in prison constructively," he says. "When you come in, you can go two ways. You can go the no-hope route or you can give yourself some hope. I chose the latter and it got me through my sentence."

He has been able to attend university through an unusual pilot project run by Aimhigher, the government-backed organisation that encourages people from under-represented groups to think about college or university. In three years, 500 prisoners have been through the project and more than 60 have gone on to some form of further or higher education, one even completing a Masters. The reoffending rate is under 6 per cent, according to a preliminary European Social Fund research study. That compares with the staggeringly high national average recidivism rate of 67 per cent. Although this is an early figure and the prison will have to wait for more reliable statistics, it does seem that higher education works where jail doesn't.

Sven is in no doubt that the project has been of immense value. Like all prisoners at Springhill he was mentored and drew up a personal development plan. In the process, he realised that he was interested in business management, hence his degree choice.

During his sentence he has taken numerous education courses. He finds his degree demanding, particularly the finance side, but is nonetheless determined to top it up to a full BA. There is no stopping him now. After that, he plans to take an MBA.

But, perhaps even more important than the qualifications he is acquiring, Sven has learnt how to help others and serve as a role model. The beauty of the project is that prisoners act as mentors for other prisoners. Sven was the Aimhigher coordinator at Springhill.

"It's been very rewarding for me," he says. "They should have this in every prison in the country." All the other prisoner-mentors nod in agreement.

Christopher, 32, who has taken over from Sven as Aimhigher coordinator, says that jail has enabled him to pursue his passion for science and astronomy. An electrician by training, he is in prison for possession of drugs with intent to supply, but says he is trying to turn something negative into a positive. He had never used a computer before going to prison; now he is a dab hand with a keyboard.

"Prisoners are more open to talking to someone who has been through the same experience as themselves," he says. "That's why this works."

The mentors are key, according to Peter Bennett, the governor of Springhill and Grendon Underwood prisons, which are located on the same site. That's because prisoners need to be persuaded that they have the ability and the opportunities. "If other prisoners can show they have been successful and can achieve in a system that has been alien and hostile to them, this can begin to work." One of the reasons people end up in prison is that they have had so little education. They fail to get qualifications – some are excluded from school and some don't even go to school – with the result that they don't have the pieces of paper to qualify them for work.

They may live on the margins of communities and have only a tenuous stake in society. Of the seven prisoner-mentors I spoke to, two had no qualifications and one of those didn't go to school after the age of 10.

"Here they can work one-to-one with a peer mentor and focus on what they would like to do," says Olivia Phelps, head of resettlement. "It builds self-confidence and a sense of self-worth.

"You can see real results here. You can see the difference between men coming in with no direction or focus – they don't know what their skills are – and working out what they can do."

Occasionally, letting men out on licence to go to college or do a degree hasn't worked because they have not been trustworthy. One or two have bunked off and have had to be returned to secure conditions or have had their course put on hold for one month, but this is the exception.

Springhill has worked at getting local universities, particularly Buckinghamshire New and Oxford Brookes, to accept their students. "We tell them that these are ordinary students who are also some of the most motivated people you are going to get," says Tracey Russell, the employment links manager at the prison. "They come back here and work in the evening because they have so much to prove."

The moving spirit behind the scheme is Karyn Buck, who runs the training company Learning Ladder in Aylesbury. She was brought in to help Nathan, a prisoner in the therapeutic jail next door, Grendon Underwood. He had been in and out of prison for 18 years but she found him a place to study natural sciences at Plumpton, a further education college in Sussex, and the rest is history. He is now crime-free and drug-free and the father of a young child.

Buck was asked to design the programme at Springhill and came up with the peer-mentor idea, based on her work with other organisations. But the programme needs to be externally managed, she emphasises. The first problem was to persuade universities to treat the prisoners as potential students rather than criminals. Once that happened, it was plain sailing.

"It's about judging people for what they are today, not what they have done in the past," she says. "I ask universities to interview first then make their decisions. Once you have had an offender who has come good, it's OK."

Aimhigher believes the project should be rolled out to prisons around the country – to closed prisons and young offender institutions – because of the benefit it brings. The other great advantage is that it is cheap. It cost £20,000 to set up and £15,000 in the second year. Now it is ticking over at £10,000 a year, a cost-effective way to ensure the next generation of prisoners goes straight.