Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice
COMMENDEES 2016-17: Thomas and Kellie, from Novus, receive a Commendation for their pivotal roles in transforming all aspects of the prisoner learning experience at HMP/YOI Thorn Cross.
Thomas Lowton, an Education Manager, and Kellie Morrissy, a Functional Skills Team Leader, both work at HMP & YOI Thorn Cross where their enthusiastic creativity, innovative instincts, and ability to deliver is dramatically transforming the prisoner learning experience. (Both are employed by Novus – a social enterprise delivering learning and skills to over 80 sites in the sector).
Nominator Paul Whittingham, Learning and Skills Manager, says Thomas and Kellie have “achieved outstanding results” using “innovation and personal commitment and drive that I have rarely witnessed before. Prisoners trust them and acknowledge their levels of support and actively engage in education. Their approach is so refreshing.” As a result, Paul adds, “education is deeply integrated into Thorn Cross and a whole prison ethos is there for all to see. I have no hesitation in attributing this to Thomas and Kellie. I am immensely proud to work with them both.”
Pia Sinha*, former Governor at HMP Thorn Cross, praises their “exceptional partnership work, for innovation, creativity and high quality initiatives”, and calls them “inspirational and creative in considering prisoner’s needs, and in helping to deliver new projects and initiatives to develop prisoner learning in an exciting and engaging manner.”
Examples include horticulture, hydroponics and geometry projects that, says Pia, “demonstrate their forward thinking, commitment and enthusiasm that has resulted in learners being able to apply learning to tangible outcomes. This included positive partnership working with our gardens department to plan and develop a ‘Geometry Garden’ within the prison, which has resulted in learners applying Maths and English to produce an aesthetically pleasing environment and enhance the community spirit.”
They also led on a ‘Hydroponic project’, a joint venture with the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN). A static caravan was refurbished for a hydroponic unit growing vegetables and fruit for sale in the prison farm shop – which also helps raise funding for future project work.
“They have shown an ability to think creatively and act flexibly by introducing evening classes for prisoners,” adds Pia. “This has been a positive introduction that means prisoners now have additional opportunities to study, as many prisoners are employed full time in external workouts or prison activities.” Linked with this was a successful construction event held at Thorn Cross, showcasing the skills and qualifications being delivered within the prison. An “inspirational event”, it “brought about new partnerships with employers, including providing support delivering job clubs for prisoners and improving training and employment opportunities.”
John Platt, Head of Learning and Skills, described this event as “one of the best events of this type I have witnessed.” Meanwhile, Novus Board Director Barry Lynch was impressed by the construction department, “where they were working on real plans and were building a house in the workshop which engaged about ten to twelve learners doing different trades – something I hadn’t seen before and an example of good practice which could possibly be replicated in other prisons. Prospective employers cannot fail to be impressed!”
Thomas and Kellie have also introduced family day events for those gaining functional skills qualifications. “These celebration events have provided an opportunity to acknowledge the success of learners whilst enhancing family ties and sharing their success.” Among their other innovations, reports Pia, are a “Governor’s Question Time” (without the political talking heads), and a student council. This lets prisoners raise issues and ask questions “in an open and transparent manner” which “has further improved prisoner and staff relationships with measurable outcomes. Question Time has been filmed and shown on all units within the prison and a newsletter has been produced to further enhance staff:prisoner relationships and communication. The partnership working, commitment, vision and ability to put ideas into practice from both Thomas and Kellie has brought about new ways of working and creative opportunities for prisoners. Their motivation and commitment has been exceptional.”
As Daniel**, a learner & mentor, reports, “The work that has been done here with the student council has brought about real outcomes. I understand that you can’t get everything that you ask for but we have seen lots of positive change over the past few months.”
Pia Sinha again:
“I personally asked for Thomas and Kellie to be nominated because I wanted them to be recognised for being such genuinely involved partners at Thorn Cross. We all know that resources within public sector prisons are tight and this limits the possibilities for new ideas; it can stifle creativity and ultimately leads to mediocre service for offenders. In meetings, whenever we are pondering solutions to problems, I would have Thomas and Kellie pipe up with ideas on how something could be done. In partnership with Novus, we have been able to provide so many innovative and rehabilitative services for our offenders. Thomas and Kellie aren’t just good at talking about solutions, they actually make them happen. Their work is of a high standard and is sustainable.”
“This kind of engagement with partners is rare and a real breath of fresh air. When you are around people who are forward thinking and energetic, it is contagious. Not only have Thomas and Kellie been part of all the good that Thorn Cross has developed, they have been inadvertent role models to the rest of our team. There is a real ‘can do’ spirit within our prison. Given the recommendations from the Coates review, I think people like Thomas and Kellie are an absolute ‘must have’ for Governors. It is this spirit that will help embed the culture of learning that is so vitally important. Thomas and Kellie are incredibly deserving of recognition by the Butler Trust.”
Thomas’s research led to changes in the curriculum, and he has also forged new links with local employers and facilitated local employer events to showcase the skills of the vocational students on catering, construction and railway engineering courses.
As a result, a number of the prisoners have sustainable employment and “are working with companies such as Pret A Manger and JW Lees as a direct progression from their initial programme of study. This has already led to a number of ex-offenders on this programme gaining full time employment.”
Meanwhile the functional skills provision led by Kellie is seen as a major factor in reducing reoffending, and inspectors were impressed by the practical delivery of these vital subjects using the Geometry Garden, with one commenting on a maths session being “fun, with learning taking place subconsciously.”
Kellie’s passionate approach to functional skills – and her innovative delivery method – has led to the number of men enrolling on maths and English courses increasing by 130% since her appointment, with pass rates now over 90% in Maths and 89% in English at Level 2.
A poignant example occurred when Kellie managed to engage a student who had avoided maths for the whole of his 22 year sentence due to a fear of failure. He has now taken and passed both his Level 1 and Level 2 qualifications – and stays to help others in the evening class.
Another project, The Veterans’ Garage, gives vocational trainees both invaluable work experience and creates a hub for ex-servicemen, supporting them through recent combat stress and other possible issues such as isolation and loneliness.
Thomas and Kellie have also introduced a ‘Pret A Manger’ training academy in the catering class, to ensure that learners are ‘industry ready’ and to help create a direct pathway to employment and work outs for them.
In further testimonials from colleagues, Thomas’s attitude to his work is described as “absolutely phenomenal”. That Novus are looking to move Thomas to other areas of their remit to improve the delivery elsewhere “is further testimony to his ability.”
Kellie has a “unique style” that “clearly demonstrates her enjoyment and enthusiasm for her work.” This reflects her “innovative and forward thinking”. She “actively engages her prisoners in contemporary projects that gets them to adapt alternative thinking for age old problems…Student buy-in and official visitors admiration for her work endorse her philosophy, which goes from strength to strength.”
As these testimonies show, the combination of Thomas’s “willingness to think creatively and consider new and innovative ways to engage learners” together with Kellie’s “enthusiasm, tenacity, and unfaltering passion” clearly make quite a team.
* Full disclosure: although Pia sits as a member of the Butler Trust Awarding Panel, as with all cases where a panel member has personal knowledge of, or involvement with, nominees, she took no part in the relevant discussion or decision-making process around Thomas and Kellie’s nomination.
** Name changed
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