NCEA behind bars

April 2013


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A new initiative between Corrections and the Open Polytechnic is hoped to reduce crime through education.


The Government is aiming to reduce reoffending by 25 per cent by 2017. That’s 18,500 fewer victims of crime each year.

Sounds like a lot in a short time. Where to begin?

As it transpires, the work is already well underway. The Department of Corrections already places a strong emphasis on reducing re-offending through education and training in prisons. Corrections Minister Anne Tolley confirms that 3000 prisoners were involved in education programmes last year and huge investments have been made in drug and alcohol programmes and training opportunities for offenders.

However, Corrections’ latest initiative will help take this one step further.

Corrections have partnered with Open Polytechnic to provide Get Ahead with NCEA, an education programme which will help prisoners achieve NCEA qualifications over the next two years. Under the programme offenders will receive two hours of coaching a week on top of six to eight hours of self-directed distance learning, and will be able to study for an Open Polytechnic Certificate in Career and Self Development, a National Certificate in Employment Skills, a Certificate in Work and Life Skills, in addition to NCEA Levels 1 and 2.

The mixed model delivery method was chosen strategically.

“The materials are designed so students can complete the content on their own, but our community experience has shown that many learners at Levels 1 and 2 have not succeeded previously in any educational environment, therefore support from the mentor/coach is just as much about building the students’ confidence so they become an independent learner, as it is supporting the student through
the learning materials,” says Leanne Rate, communications manager for Open Polytechnic.

It is expected that approximately 2000 prisoners will be enrolled in the programme. Students were recruited to start in the 2nd and 3rd weeks of February this year. A second and third student cohort will start training in April and June.

The programme is the result of discussions between Corrections’ staff and senior Open Polytechnic managers last year, about how the two organisations could work collaboratively to improve the education outcomes of individuals within the care of the Department of Corrections, both within facilities and as they transition into the community.

Open Polytechnic’s Get Ahead programmes were a good fit. The polytechnic has successfully delivered such programmes through other community organisations.

“Our Get Ahead programmes have helped a lot of people develop work and life skills and the increased self-confidence that comes from having those skills,” says chief executive Dr Caroline Seelig.

Open Polytechnic itself is well-suited to partnering with the Corrections programme, given its specialism in flexible learning and experience in working with community, education and industry providers. It has worked with a number of Industry Training Organisations, and recently with several financial institutions in supplying financial adviser training to meet the requirements of new Government regulations.

However, while the institution has had a role in educating some offenders in the past, the new partnership with Corrections suggests a much bigger step in the direction of prisoner education.

“We’re really excited about this partnership between our organisations and the potential to make a real difference through our collaboration,” says Seelig.

“Our goal is to empower them with new skills that will benefit themselves and their families, and the communities they will reintegrate into when they are released.”

The programme delivered in partnership with Corrections will contribute to 18 of the 28 performance commitments Open Polytechnic has made to Tertiary Education Commission for 2013. These include a focus on enhancing transitions for learners from Level 1 and 2 through to higher level qualifications.

The benefits of educating prisoners are not unknown. Research shows that education plays a big part in reducing recidivism – the rate at which prisoners commit new crimes leading to re-arrest or re-incarceration.

A 2012 five year follow-up study led by John Nally, director of education for the Indiana Department of Correction, confirmed that unemployment levels among released offenders are higher than other members of society, due to inadequate education and job skills. It also confirmed that recidivist offenders are often unemployed or under-educated, and, most significantly, that education is an important element for re-entry into society.

Celia Chazelle, co-founder of The College of New Jersey’s Center for Prison Outreach and Education, says that of the inmates who eventually return to society, those who receive educational programming behind bars are more likely to find jobs and do without government assistance.

Although much of the research on educating prisoners is based in the United States, the findings reflect what is happening in New Zealand prisons.

Eighty per cent of offenders in the care of Corrections have no secondary or tertiary qualification; 84 per cent left school at or before 16 years of age. As a result of this, there are a large number of offenders who lack basic literacy and numeracy skills which affects their ability to gain employment, or to participate in their own rehabilitation.

 “We know that a lack of education is a major driver of crime,” says Minister Tolley. “The reality is that around 90 per cent of prisoners can’t read or write properly. Most will be released back into our communities, but while they are inside prison they are the ultimate captive audience.

“If we can give them access to an education while inside the wire, or just after release into the community, they can learn literacy and numeracy skills and earn qualifications, which will help them hold down jobs and make a positive contribution to society, instead of returning to crime.”

Prisoner education at the local level

While the Open Polytechnic’s partnership with Corrections is national in its scope, Otago Polytechnic’s arrangement with the Otago Corrections Facility is a good example of prisoner education operating at a local level.

Otago Polytechnic is contracted to provide teaching of computer and business administration skills to offenders. Programmes are delivered in a classroom in the programmes area of the Otago Corrections Facility with a maximum of 10 students per class. “I’m the only non-prisoner in attendance,” says Garry Patterson, a computing lecturer who leads the classes at the facility.

Patterson says the expectation is that prisoners will gain skills that they often failed to do at school that will assist them on the outside.

The polytechnic has recently changed how it operates its prison programme, due to issues around non-completion. Prisoners were released or sent to other prisons, which had a major impact on completions. As a result, the focus is more on gaining skills than actual qualifications.

Patterson says it is very rewarding seeing offenders achieve.

“A lot of these guys have had little or no education or positive achievements in their lives and it’s a real pleasure to see how they react when they pass their first assessment. They display real pride and they obviously feel good about it which must flow on. A man who has learnt new things and skills will always feel good about that and this can flow on to having a go at a job he wouldn’t have dared to before and perhaps not turn to crime which is the easy option. I’ve seen a few former students working around town.”