PRISONERS AT a high-security young offenders' institution have been named as the best budding car mechanics in the country in an extraordinary accolade by the motor industry.
The young inmates, who are serving sentences of between five and eight years, have achieved results that have staggered the giant Toyota car company, which has so far invested pounds 150,000 in their training.
Car dealerships, faced with an industry-wide shortage of skilled staff, are offering job interviews to the prisoners when they are released from Aylesbury Young Offenders' Institution in Buckinghamshire.
The new prisons minister, Paul Boateng, made the training course the subject of his first ministerial visit earlier this month. Mr Boateng said it was "a marvellous example of how offenders can learn really valuable skills to give them a head start on release".
The head of the course, Andy Woodley, collected the Unipart Training Award at the Motor Trader industry awards at the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane, London, last month. "The awards were like the Oscars for the motor industry," Mr Woodley said. "It really finished off all the hard work that has gone on here to set this up."
Mr Woodley, a teacher with Amersham and Wycombe College, has transformed Aylesbury's motor vehicle maintenance course since he arrived 18 months ago. His idea was to write to every big car manufacturer in Britain, requesting financial support for the project. Only Toyota replied, sending senior executives to visit the jail.
They were sufficiently impressed by the enthusiasm of Mr Woodley and the young inmates that the company donated seven vehicles - an RAV four- wheel-drive, five Carina saloons and a Hilux pick-up. The vehicles are complete except for the airbag detonators, which prison staff feared could be used to blow off a cell door.
The jail building that houses the course is painted in Toyota's colours - yellow and grey - and is officially part of its Technical Education Programme. Inside, a dozen inmates work five days a week, regularly achieving marks of between 90 and 95 per cent for their course work, higher than any other group of Toyota trainees.
The reputation of the course within Aylesbury is now so high that the waiting list for 12 places extends to 100 of the 350 inmates. Mr Woodley said the course was not designed to rehabilitate joy-riders and he did not question prospective trainees about their past involvement in car crime. "What I am looking for is enthusiasm.
"We don't have any incidents on this course. That's because they want to be here and they know they will be thrown off if there are any problems."
The prisoners on the project, who are aged between 17 and 21, are hoping to achieve a level three National Vocational Qualification as a motor vehicle technician.
Gavin Marney, 21, who is serving a six-year sentence, said he was not interested in cars before he was convicted but now hopes his training will help him to find work. "I don't think my family realise just how good this course is," he said. "They think I am just tinkering around with some cars."
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