Ex-offenders learning and making positive choices

Ex-offenders learning and making positive choices

‘No Barriers’

Led by: Adult and Family Learning Service, East Renfrewshire Council


An Adult Learning service, by building a close partnership with a Social Work service, has been able to build opportunities for learning and building skills and confidence in to Community Payback Orders imposed by the courts, and as a result participants have been able to gain better outcomes overall and respond positively to national programmes.


In 2009/10 the Criminal Justice team in the Social Work service of East Renfrewshire Council were already thinking about the potential of the Community Payback Orders, which were due to be introduced in February 2011.   These Orders replace previous provisions for Community Service Orders, Probation Orders and Supervised Attendance Orders. A Community Payback Order can include a number of requirements from which the court may select one or more, such as unpaid work in the community, or the completion of intensive supervision, alcohol, drug or behavioural programmes. As part of this, people on Community Payback can be credited with various ‘positive uses’ of their time. The Order can be tailored specifically to each offender, based on the nature of their crime and the underlying issues which may need to be addressed in order to stop them re-offending in the future.

In preparation for this the Adult and Family Learning Service, East Renfrewshire Council developed proposals with the Criminal Justice Worker in Social Work to engage with, and develop core skills and confidence in adults on existing community orders.

Actions taken

The aim of the ‘No Barriers’ project was to provide holistic support offering the clients of Criminal Justice a seamless experience of engaging with a number of services which could offer an alternative to re-offending. It was originally funded through an Education Scotland Challenge Fund. This funding allowed a specific, specially trained tutor to be involved.

The first six months were spent planning and team building – helping the Adult and Family Learning Service and Social Work teams to understand each other’s approaches, and to bring other partners in. This stage was fundamental to success. The relationships which were established then allowed any future issues to be dealt with effectively. 

The project began in a quite low key way.  At first they worked with people on probation orders or parole, assessing their literacy and numeracy. They found that many had bad experiences of school. But they quickly saw that a concentration on literacy and numeracy alone was not enough, and not sufficiently engaging for participants. They needed to offer people a vision and choices that could change their lives.

Making literacies relevant to people’s lives was crucial. Looking at issues that they have to deal with in everyday life, such as filling in forms, got them involved and allowed the project to lead people on gradually to other learning, such as positive psychology.

Potential participants were invited to an initial meeting with the Adult and Family Learning Service worker. She offered them voluntary participation in the programme – these being people who social workers had feared would not even turn up to a meeting. To do this she had crucially to obtain their trust as offering a service that would help, not criticise people.

The differing approaches of the two services to the voluntary basis of people’s choices and activities appeared to be a potential barrier. As a result the adult learning worker was initially reluctant to take part in formal Social Work review meetings with clients. But in the end she reported that her participation in these reviews had proved to be one of the most positive aspects of the work. Clients were able to see how two different teams were both working for them.

This existing joint work allowed East Renfrewshire to be quick in starting to make use of the new Community Payback Orders when they were introduced in 2011. The orders could include up to 30 hours of ‘other activities’ and participants were offered the chance to complete these in adult learning settings. The approach was holistic, incorporating learning and guidance. The clients saw no division between these.  The initial one to one contact prepared people for subsequent group work, unless people had specific difficulties or incompatibilities, in which case further one to one leaning might be offered.

The people referred to the project tended to be repeat petty offenders or involved in anti-social behaviour. Many, but by no means all, were aged 18-25. Males in their 30s were also typical, and there were some older participants.

A typical part of a community sentence continued to be referral to a ‘Constructs’ course. ‘Constructs: Positive Steps to Stop Offending’ is a nationally accredited 26 week programme aimed at persistent male offenders over the age of 18 assessed as having difficulties with problem solving, social skills and pro-social attitudes. It aims to help participants reduce the likelihood of being involved in further offending by helping change the way they think and behave. The group work programme is designed to help participants:

  •  learn and practice new ways about how they think about and respond to problems
  • practise methods of problem-solving
  • ·learn and practise a number of other skills to reduce the risk of re-offending such as assertiveness, dealing with conflict and resisting peer group pressure
  • ·         develop a detailed plan for avoiding offending in the future.

The ‘Constructs’ programme has a proven impact, with a high likelihood of helping people to change. But it requires attendance at weekly sessions over a period of six months. If participants miss a session, they are required to attend a ‘catch-up’ session before the next scheduled session, and all group members are expected to do ‘homework’ exercises. The local experience was that many people were not sustaining the programme, dropping out and incurring further punishment.

‘No Barriers’ allows a different approach to using the ‘Constructs’ programme.  They do not refer people as soon as they are placed on an Order but wait until they are ready, and refer them at the right stage. It is easier to refer people once their individual needs have been addressed and their bad experiences of education overcome. Attending “No Barriers” provides a good preparation for the course and builds the confidence of the service user.

The funded project has now ended. But the Adult and Family Learning Service continues to work with Criminal Justice. There are about the same number of referrals as before. But people now mostly have to be referred straight to existing groups. A shorter induction period can sometimes be offered, but there is less time to help people with Individual Learning Plans etc., and there are fewer specialist learning groups set up specifically for offenders.

Partnership and strategy

The project worked because it developed a close partnership approach between Adult Learning and Social Work Criminal Justice. Job Centre Plus and Voluntary Action East Renfrewshire are also involved. Outcomes are reported to the Community Learning and Development Partnership.  

Evidence of impact

Building core skills and confidence is shown by research to reduce reoffending (McGuire J. and Priestley P. (1995))[1].  Local experience also suggests that reoffending has been prevented by the approach that has been taken; and that learning was a crucial element of this, by helping people improve their skills and confidence and engage in positive choices, making conscious decisions to seek volunteering, training or employment. Some people who have finished their Orders have kept in touch and found opportunities e.g. volunteering through the Volunteer Centre, or work placements.

16 local people have completed the ‘Constructs’ programme since it commenced in 2007. However there were very few successful completions before ‘No Barriers’ started. The focus of ‘No Barriers’ has been to assist people to get to a stage where they feel they can cope with a 26 week programme. Constructs staff have given feedback that ‘No Barriers’ clients seemed to be able to last the course and were better prepared to attend.

The experience has also influenced work with other groups of Social Work clients. Other sections of Social Work are now interested in integrating Community Learning and Development provision into e.g. Care Plans and addiction recovery programmes, and to invite CLD attendance at review meetings.

[1] McGuire J. and Priestley P. (1995) Reviewing ‘what works’: Past, present and future. In: McGuire J (ed.) What Works: Reducing Reoffending – Guidelines from Research and Practice. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons. 

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