Tools for teaching (and how to spell them)
exploring English in vocational contexts

Novus: HMP Liverpool

This project captured a range of reflections on the experience of teaching and learning English in the context of vocational training in prisons. It challenged tutors’ assumptions about learners and led to clearer insights into and development of support for the needs of learners.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


Previous research for OTLA 7 showed that HMP Liverpool’s body of learners has a desire for self-improvement but was not particularly engaged with Functional Skills learning. This project for OTLA 8 was intended to address how learner engagement and motivation could be captured and developed by strengthening links between English and vocational teaching. Instead of learning English as a separate topic, it was hoped that learners would find greater relevance by practising English directly in the context of vocational workshops therefore highlighting the importance of English to daily life and the workplace.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OLTA 8 Programme. The research focused on the education department of HMP Liverpool with delivery provided by Novus. It took place in the vocational workshops, particularly joinery, and involved a group of 12 learners undertaking a Level 1 joinery qualification. The project lead, an English tutor, also worked closely with vocational tutors from a range of subjects including catering, industrial cleaning and joinery to ensure their views, feedback and attitudes towards the research could be accurately captured.

Initially, there were plans for more English tutors to be involved in the project, trialling activities using vocational topics and resources in their lessons to encourage greater collaboration between departments.


The approach to this project took the form of four main strands. Firstly, learners from the general vocational cohort were interviewed to establish their competence, comfort and opinions about the importance and relevance of English to their past and current life experiences. These took place over in-cell telephones which allowed learners space and privacy to be honest in their answers.

Data from the interviews (which showed a group of learners who generally appreciated the relevance of English skills to their lives inside and outside of prison) was then used to inform the planning of English teaching activities which were conducted in the joinery workshop towards the end of lessons. These included spelling words relevant to the joinery qualification (taken from workbooks) and texts a joiner might use at work (e.g., risk assessments). Learner reflections were captured to record what they had learned and how they felt about the activities. The tutor also reflected on each activity.

In addition to teaching activities, detailed explorations of joinery learners’ previous experience of English learning took place including at school, prison and elsewhere, how they would prefer to be taught, what has worked well in the past and what they would like to try in the future. Interviews were conducted with a range of learners including those who were less receptive to the changes in learning trialled by the project. Learners with contrasting views and experiences were selected to examine effective ways of teaching English to vocational learners.

Discussions were held with vocational tutors to find out their attitudes towards and confidence with English teaching and their opinions on the impact of CPD related to the research. This was to ensure any developments in teaching activities would be sustainable and easy to maintain in future.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

The impact of this project on teaching, learning and assessment can be seen in many ways. The first is improved relationships between vocational trainers and English teachers. Previously, the departments were noticeably separate both physically and collaboratively. Vocational trainers have been able to feel safe communicating their feelings toward English teaching: ‘I don’t think it would be fair on me or the learner to teach them something I’m not confident in myself’ [Appendix 7].

This has enabled bespoke CPD intended to improve confidence and adaptations to lesson scheduling to allow better use of available teaching time. It is now normal for vocational trainers to discuss their planning with English tutors to check that English has been included effectively. This has led to a greater focus on embedding English in vocational training and increased knowledge about it. There is now a bank of English resources for tutors and trainers to use that are directly related to the vocational subjects being taught. They include the use and spelling of technical vocabulary and exploration of texts that are used when working within the industries the learners are getting their qualification for [Appendix 8].

There is also now a much better understanding of vocational learners’ capabilities and attitudes towards English. There was a general assumption that learners chose vocational subjects because they were no good at or had no interest in learning English skills. While this may be true for some learners, the majority of those interviewed could clearly and articulately explain how English was relevant to their lives and how they used it before and while being in prison [Appendix 3]. Even if they said they preferred vocational subjects to English learning, and did not want to study it further, they could appreciate its importance. The learner contributing to Case Study Two who did not want to learn English said: ‘You use it for everything, don’t you? Even though you don’t realise it, you are.’ [Appendix 6]. This challenged vocational tutors’ statements such as ‘they would disengage’ or ‘I don’t think they would be bothered’ [Appendix 7] and led to the implementation of English drop-in sessions for vocational leaners who express a wish for this or who need to learn specifically identified skills.

Organisational Development

The main organisational change has been the development of English teaching alongside vocational training. Previously vocational trainers were expected to teach English to address mistakes made by learners, without being given appropriate training to do so. Vocational trainers now have a range of trialled resources to use and have been empowered to develop their own activities which teach English and vocational topics in parallel should this suit their cohort of learners [Appendix 8]. This was a result of listening to learners, vocational trainers and English tutors. Contributions to the development of English teaching were not limited to English tutors themselves: ‘I have put together some theory lessons that are based on my Level 1 course that will include them doing written work.’ [Appendix 6]. The professional standard of the building of positive and collaborative relationships with colleagues and learners was seen frequently throughout, with learners and vocational trainers giving insights that would not have been obvious to an English tutor planning alone [Appendix 4]. New perspectives were gained through detailed interviews with learners who had contrasting viewpoints [Appendices 1 and 6]. These led to the decision to set up English drop-in sessions for learners who want them or those identified by vocational trainers as needing to work on specific skills. These will be conducted by English teachers to cater for those learners who needed confidence in their tutor’s subject knowledge.

Learning from this project

Findings from this project can be seen to link to those of OTLA 6 where a focus on spelling within vocational prison workshops was explored. Common themes across both pieces of research include the ‘how learners benefit from breaking words into syllables when learning spelling’ and ‘how improving the confidence of vocational trainers really helps if they are required to teach aspects of English’. ‘Encouraging staff to try a different approach within their delivery, coupled with the introduction of a new concept, has led to their improved confidence and autonomy…’ (OTLA 6 Project 10d Novus, 2020).

By recording reflections and feedback from learners and vocational trainers, it was possible to develop resources directly linking to work, enabling them to participate more confidently: ‘It would need to be fun and interesting’ and ‘Integrate it more into joinery’ [Appendix 6]. Trainers have been supported to think carefully about their approach to English and are now equipped to develop English resources to use alongside vocational teaching where appropriate. ‘I asked the learners about [my English resources] and the majority would be keen to do them, so I would be confident in delivering it that way.’ [Appendix 7]. This ensured the sustainability of learning from the project in conjunction with learner drop-in sessions.
This research would have been even better if its scope had not been restricted by physical limitations caused by environmental issues and Covid outbreaks which caused workshops and catering to be closed for many months. Despite gaining useful insights from activities that were trialled, more data could have been gathered if these were started sooner.

However, as this change in direction led to detailed insights from learner interviews, it is possible that the information seen in the case studies might not have been gained otherwise.

This project challenged the assumption that vocational learners have little appreciation of the relevance of English. Even the least receptive of learners could articulate the importance of using English for work and daily life. It highlighted the need for tutors to contextualise the teaching of English to maximise its meaning, impact and use for the learner and for vocational trainers to have tools to teach English (if they need them) in addition to the tools of their trade.

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 1. Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the diverse needs of learners

    By trialling English resources and capturing reflections from learners, the vocational department is now able to extend opportunities for those who have previously thought that ‘academic’ subjects were ‘not for them’. The reflections given were sometimes bluntly honest which encouraged in-depth thinking around what might work better. It was then possible to teach English in different ways to meet the needs of more learners. Working with and adapting teaching approaches for those with ADHD and other neurodiversities gave tutors a greater insight into how to support English for a wider range of learners.

  • 2. Evaluate and challenge your practice, values and beliefs.

    Our project provided time and space for us to come together as a teaching team to challenge our assumptions about how learners deconstruct and build words. By engaging in research activity that asked for learners’ perspectives, we were able to appreciate that through understanding learners existing spelling strategies, and building on these, greater progress was made than when we started from a position of learners as spelling novices.

  • 10. Evaluate your practice with others and assess its impact on learning.

    Discussion of the success and failure of teaching activities often took place between the vocational trainer and the English tutor. As a result of these discussions, it was possible to focus on details of the activities which posed particular challenges (e.g. the spelling of word endings) and how these could be addressed. The vocational tutor was often able to capture more detailed feedback in conversation with learners which led to changes in the delivery of future activities.

  • 20. Contribute to organisational development and quality improvement through collaboration with others.

    Links and working relationships between vocational and English departments have now been strengthened through discussion about and the gathering of ideas from tutors/trainers from a range of areas. There is a renewed focus on the embedding of English in vocational teaching and drop-in sessions for learners have been planned for vocational workshops.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Initial attitudes to English learning

Appendix 4: Learner Reflections on Activities

Appendix 5: Tutor’s Reflections on Activities

Appendix 6: Joinery Learners’ Interview Responses

Appendix 7: Trainer Discussions

Appendix 8: Resource Padlet


Claire Collins Consultancy (2022) Empowering Vocational Tutors to Develop a Phonics-Based Approach to Functional English [online] Available at: Accessed: 14.03.2022.


Supporting vocational trainers in prisons to embed EDS in their courses


This project investigated the barriers preventing vocational trainers from embedding digital skills in their course delivery. By creating a bespoke training package with vocationally contextualised resources, these barriers have been reduced and colleagues are better prepared and more confident to support their own learners with the development of digital skills and awareness.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


Many of the vocational workshops and teaching spaces in prisons have limited access to technology resources and equipment due to their location within the prison establishment. For example, workshop spaces are not connected to the education computer network or Virtual Campus. As a result, trainers tend not to adopt digital approaches in their delivery.

This results in a number of barriers to learning: some tutors lack current, up-to-date knowledge of the digital world; some tutors lack confidence and experience in embedding digital learning; learners do not develop their digital skills while studying vocational courses. This is not an isolated issue and is something experienced by vocational trainers across the FE sector (Cattaneo, Antonietti and Rauseo, 2022; Prisoner’s Education Trust, 2021; Prisoner Learning Alliance, 2020).

However, embedding digital skills does not solely rely on the availability of digital technology (Sailer, Murböck and Fischer, 2021; Sailer, 2021). Therefore, this project aimed to better understand the wider barriers preventing vocational trainers from embedding digital skills into their delivery to inform the design of a bespoke training package and creation of resources to be used by vocational teams across the West Midlands region.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research activities were carried out with the vocational teams across the West Midlands prison group, with a specific focus on working with vocational trainers from HMP Hewell and HMPYOI Stoke Heath. We worked with three subject specialists, each from a different area of vocational study: catering and hospitality, construction and industrial cleaning. The training package and resources were disseminated across the whole of the West Midlands region, totalling eight different vocational teams.

Image of 'starter and enders' task cardThe resources we chose to create were inspired by the ETF’s ‘Digital Skills Starters and Enders’ cards (ETF, 2018). These are already used widely across the prison education estate and are a simple, quick way of embedding digital skills into lessons without the use of a computer.

We have adapted this format to focus specifically on vocational subject scenarios, for example, a chef creating a recipe database in a working kitchen or a builder creating a social media presence for their business.

A Padlet board was used to gather and collate evidence throughout the project, including examples of the resources created and tutor and learner feedback. More details of this can be viewed in Appendix 3. Please view this alongside the report for additional context.


Phase 1 – Recruiting Subject Specialists

Subject specialists in each area of vocational study were identified by the regional manager. All three specialists were briefed on the project aim during a face-to-face meeting with one of the project leaders.

Phase 2 – Pilot Study

Subject specialists were introduced to the pilot study activity: a Facebook Group Template (pictured here on the left). They were briefed in how the activity should be carried out; learners were invited to fill in the template using information they created for a fictional business linked to their subject area. Subject specialists carried this task out, collecting a number of good examples of how their learners utilised the template and kept a reflective log about the impact of the digital activity on their teaching (see Appendix 3 for further details).


'Facebook' template

Phase 3 – Identifying Current Strategies Embedding Digital

Project leaders had planned to sit down with specialists to go through schemes of learning to identifying pre-existing opportunities to embed digital skills. However, this was not necessary with the two specialists as they already had a bank of ideas for digital activities they could create.

template ideas

Phase 4 – Planning, Drafting and Creation of Bespoke Resources

Subject specialists were briefed on their task; produce three activity cards that embed digital skills without needing the use of technology.

The project leaders took the final three ideas from each specialist and entered them into the template for the final resource. An online shopping example from a Construction scenario can be seen here on the right. The full set of cards is on the Padlet

Example resource (buying hardware online)

Phase 5 – Dissemination of Resources (with training)

A set of the relevant activity cards was shared with subject specialists with guidance from project leaders on how they might be used.

A WhatsApp example is shown here. Tutors were encouraged to record their thoughts and learner feedback received when using the resources.

Phase 6 – Collection of Feedback and Conclusions

Feedback was collected from those tutors who trialled the resources via a Microsoft Forms feedback sheet, in-person conversations and written feedback sheets.

An example of one tutor’s reflections can be seen here on the right.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

The sharing and modelling of the use of the ETF’s generic digital skills ‘Starter and Ender Cards’ prompted and inspired the tutors in the project team to work with vocational specialists to produce creative, contextualised designs for digital skills development activities for prison learners without access to a computer. This process began with design of catering and hospitality themed cards and is now developing further with construction and cleaning-based resources.

Image of a storyboardThe resources produced empowered learners to develop digital, writing and communication skills as they drafted business Facebook pages like the one shown here, recipe website content and online review site content.

These activities gave learners an authentic experience of digital platforms and services such as Facebook, Trip Advisor, recipe repository websites and online purchasing systems for specialist equipment.

The vocational specialists also had an opportunity to trial their new resources with learners and to begin to refine them based on initial learner feedback.

This aspect of the research activity opened up an opportunity for the production of learner-led, co-designed digital skills development strategies and resources, which can be incorporated into future schemes of work as learners suggest the platforms and digital tasks they would like to explore next.

Following on from one pilot study activity (the creation of a Facebook Group Template), the catering specialist decided that having a blank template for learners to fill in was a very effective tool for the Food Safety course they were delivering. They created a blank ‘booklet’ for food safety guidance which is now an in-cell stretch and challenge activity that is available for each cohort of learners (see Padlet).

Organisational Development

Work on this project has led to improved communication and an increase in collaborative working between the tutor project managers and the vocational specialists who are working directly with learners. Co-working and co-creation with OTLA projects 2a and 2b saw increased creative collaboration between Novus digital champions on digital learning design.

Vocational specialists have expressed an interest in having more communication between vocational teams from different establishments and access to a place to share resources, ideas and questions. Our initial thoughts are that a MS Teams group could be set up and all vocational teams from the West Midlands added to it; project leaders are currently discussing this option.

The project management team have widened their professional network and profile by disseminating research outcomes to peers and now have the opportunity to set up digital skills learning networks by showcasing their successes and encouraging vocational tutors in other specialist areas to create digital learning resources.

Learning from this project

Drawing of an imaginary chef (with all the wrong PPE - wearing flip-flops, with a nose piercing etc.)

Image of an imaginary chef (with all the wrong PPE!)

This project has confirmed that specialist vocational tutors wish to integrate contextualised digital skills development into their sessions but felt that the lack of access to digital devices and networks in classes made this impossible.

What tutors needed was some inspiration in the shape of the sharing and modelling of use of ‘for instance’ resources which suggested the types of templates that they might use and the kinds of platform and task they could focus on.

Once engaging resources, such as realistic templates for online tasks using authentic colours and layouts, were modelled by the project team, tutors ‘ran with them’ to design engaging paper-based activities. The leveraging of existing popular strategies such as integration of the case study avatar ‘Chef Steve’ (here shown in a hazard spotting activity) from previous vocational learning activities added familiarity for the learners and encouraged even more engagement.

If digital and English skills development resources are created in one vocational specialism, these can be used as powerful models for other specialist areas, all that is needed are some ‘why not try this?’ examples to encourage and empower vocational tutors.

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 4. Be creative and innovative in selecting and adapting strategies to help learners to learn.

    Due to the lack of technology in vocational spaces, trainers have no choice but to be creative and innovative when designing was to embed digital into their delivery. Collaborating with each other, and digital champions, empowers trainers to share and develop ideas that ‘think outside the box’. Traditional methods for embedding digital are not possible in these spaces, so trainers have instead implemented strategies likes interactive display boards, interactive phone templates and simulated website pages.

  • 6. Build positive and collaborative relationships with colleagues and learners.

    Working with multiple subject specialists meant a really positive team-working mentality was built in right from the start of the project. Specialists worked closely with project leaders throughout, sharing ideas and feedback at each step of the project. Positive relationships were also developed between the tutor and learners, as they supported the project by trying out different activities and providing feedback.

  • 15. Promote the benefits of technology and support learners in its use.

    This project aimed to support vocational trainers in identifying simple, yet effective, ways to embed digital without the need of technology, as this is often the main barrier to embedding digital skills in teaching and learning activities. By supporting colleagues to update their own knowledge of how to use digital skills, they were able to see the benefits of sharing this with their learners. As this project focused on digital skills outside of using physical technology, trainers were encouraged to explore contemporary digital content, including social media, showing they are up to date with what is being taught in other FE settings.


This project was carried out (and report written) by Ashleigh Whitwell (Project Lead) and Ellie Whitehall (Project Deputy).

With thanks to their mentor Lynne Taylerson and Research Group Lead Bob Read, for their support.


Appendix 2 – Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3 – Project Padlet


Cattaneto, A.P.P., Antonietti, C. and Rauseo, M. (2022) How digitalised are vocational teachers? Assessing digital competence in vocational education and looking at its underlaying factors, Computers & Education, 176, pp. 1-18.

ETF (2018) ‘Digital Skills Starters and Enders’ cards. [online]

Prisoners’ Education Trust (2021)

Prisoner Learning Alliance (2020)

Sailer, Murböck and Fischer (2021) Digital learning in schools: What does it take beyond digital technology? Teaching and Teacher Education, Volume 103, 2021 ( )

Sailer et al (2021) Technology-related teaching skills and attitudes: Validation of a scenario-based self-assessment instrument for teachers. Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 115, 2021. (


English and digital tools in the prison classroom


This project explored how to improve the embedding of digital tools within English sessions across Novus’ provision. The project set out to research, design, and deliver a bespoke training offer for teachers of English across prisons in the West Midlands.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


The Centre for Social Justice (2021:4) released a report which cited prisoners as being frequently amongst the most ‘digitally excluded’ members of society. Furthermore, the Coates Review (2016) made recommendations regarding a need for increased incorporation of digital skills within the prison curriculum. This project was informed by previous and existing CPD training offers made available by Novus relating to enhancing the learning experience through effective use of digital tools that have been developed since the publication of this report.

Image showing Novus' whitelisted websitesWhen commenting on the Coates Review, Crabbe (2016:6) highlighted that a key theme related to prison staff being ‘risk-averse’ when it came to using information technology. Additionally, it was discovered that the Virtual Campus (VC), whilst widely available across the majority of prison establishments, was felt to be too difficult to access. It was the aim of this project to further demystify the process of accessing the VC to enable colleagues to make greater use of digital tools accessible via the VC (see left), enhancing the classroom experience for learners.

A lower-than-expected utilisation of digital tools being used to enhance learning, teaching and assessment within English teaching, particularly across the West Midlands was identified by Novus digital leads which led to the project being situated within this region.

This project therefore aimed to investigate the reasons behind the resistance to the use of digital tools within learning and further raise awareness of the digital tools available to colleagues to support their delivery. This was intended to be achieved through the creation of a tailored set of training delivered across the West Midlands region.

Other Contextual Information

The setting for our project was all prisons situated in the West Midlands region (Lot 15) with a focus on English. The region comprises of: HMP Birmingham, HMPYOI Brinsford, HMP Featherstone, HMP Hewell, HMP Oakwood, HMP Stafford, HMPYOI Stoke Heath and HMPYOI Swinfen Hall. As part of the project, we were able to connect with colleagues to deliver training and provide support to them with their embedding of digital tools into their delivery.

Leaders for the project were both based at prison establishments within this region and have a combined 11 years’ experience teaching within this context. Project leaders worked as joint Virtual Campus Digital Champions within the West Midlands and were committed to supporting colleagues to utilise digital skills to enhance the overall learning experience.


Note that examples of digital assets and comments from participants in the project phases below can be found on the project Padlet (shown below, also see Appendix 3).

Questionnaire (extract)

Phase 1

A MS Form-based questionnaire was shared with all colleagues involved in the delivery of Functional Skills English across all prisons within the West Midlands region. A total of 9 responses were received from six of the eight prisons across the Lot.

The purpose of this MS Form was to establish a starting point in terms of embedding digital into their delivery across the region.

Replies assisted project leads in assessing where tutors felt they were able to embed digital well already. They also enabled project leads to react to responses relating to specified barriers which could be addressed within the training offer as well as gather previously unconsidered ideas surrounding which digital tools to incorporate into the training package.

City and Guilds SmartScreen image

Phase 2

A pilot was conducted using the two prison establishments at which project leads are based. The pilot training programme made use of BKSB Live 2 and City & Guilds SmartScreen (see left) to introduce the digital tools that could be employed within the prison classroom.

Phase 3

A review of the pilot training offer provided was conducted using quotes from focus groups and one-to-one discussions which took place immediately following delivery of pilot training package.

Consultation also occurred with a member of the Teacher Education Development (TED) Team within Novus. Novus’s TED team were formed during 2020 and have developed a wide range of CPD for colleagues across Novus delivered in a variety of ways. Project leads discussed the most effective methods when delivering training or disseminating information to colleagues that can be used to enhance delivery such as participant packs like the one shown above.

Image showing 'how to use GoConqr training'

Phase 4

The project was expanded to include the Learning on Screen and Go Conqr tools to the training offer and delivery was extended to an additional three sites within the region: HMP Featherstone, HMP Birmingham and HMP Swinfen Hall.

Image showing materials created by the project team

Phase 5

Direct participants created further digital learning resources and shared these within the region via VC  – Virtual Campus 2, example shown here. Further feedback was collected from these training sessions delivered to colleagues.

Image showing a slide from dissemination event

Phase 6: Dissemination of findings.

Two separate sessions entitled Enhancing the Learning Experience: Utilising Digital Skills in the English Classroom were prepared and delivered at the 2022 Novus day of the LTE Group’s Teaching and Learning Conference. This involved colleagues, not just from the West Midlands but across all Novus sites including Novus Cambria.

Tutor feedbackOutcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

Use of the initial survey acted as a really effective scoping activity to determine where pockets of enthusiastic digital learning existing practice lay and what the barriers were to wider learning technology use in Functional Skills English delivery. Analysis of the feedback surveys allowed a bespoke CPD offer to be planned and facilitated across the West Midlands region initially using BKSB Live 2 and City and Guilds SmartScreen. Feedback added to the evidence on what further support tutors want and where their interests lie.

The CPD provided allowed the project team to effectively model a range of different learning technology tools and contextualised English learning resources including Learning on Screen and Go Conqr. The tutors attending found the training beneficial.

Tutors were able to familiarise themselves with learning resources available on the Virtual Campus that they were previously unaware of and use these in their practice.

Tutors noted that extending use of learning technology, for example the use of short video clips as discussion stimuli and accessing screen archives, has widened their resource repertoire and resulted in learners being far more engaged than they were in the past.

Organisational Development

This project supported the development of colleagues’ working practices by further empowering them to incorporate the digital tools available into their delivery. Participating in the projects enabled the project leads to establish a starting point for the confidence levels of colleagues and work towards increasing these as the project progressed.

The training provided empowered tutors to familiarise themselves with the learning resources available on the Virtual Campus such as the screen archive Box of Broadcasts (BoB) and empowered them to extend their practice by making educational video clips which have resulted in prison learners being far more involved in group discussions.

As a consequence of the project, there are five digital tools that have been identified as proposed routeways into further embedding digital into English delivery consistently following the development of a bespoke training offer: City and Guilds SmartScreen, BKSB (in particular their Skills Check activities), Hemingway App, GoConqr and Learning on Screen.

The project team were also able to extend their professional network and raise their profile by presenting and disseminating the findings and outcomes of this research. A video showcased at the Teaching and Learning Conference demonstrated how the range of digital tools leveraged by the project could be embedded within English delivery. This resource is now available to all colleagues via the Novus Personal Growth and Development webpage.

Learning from this project

Work on this project has revealed that there is definitely enthusiasm for the extended use of learning technology by English tutors in a prison environment. Numerous challenges and barriers to leveraging technology exist, including ready access to platforms and devices, familiarity with how to obtain platform user accounts and provision of CPD to extend digital skills and pedagogy. An initial scoping activity was valuable to determine where existing good practice sits and where there is enthusiasm for further learning technology development.

Once a clear picture of the existing landscape has been established, learning technology showcases modelling the use of contextualised examples, in the case of this project in English learning, give tutors the exposure, ideas and impetus they need to become more effective and enthusiastic users of digital tools. Once prison tutors experience how popular use of resources, such as videos for discussion prompts, are with their learners this gives them encouragement to experiment further with learning technology and digital pedagogy.

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 4. Be creative and innovative in selecting and adapting strategies to help learners to learn.

    This project took the approach of teachers as learners. Participants needed to embrace digital as a way of offering innovation to them as teachers. It was the intention of the project that these would then be passed on in creative ways to their learners, supporting them in their access to and development of different concepts.

  • 6. Build positive and collaborative relationships with colleagues and learners

    This project enabled us to not only strengthen the collaborative relationship between project leads as Digital Champions for the region, but also build collaborative partnerships with colleagues at establishments beyond those at which project leads are based. This collaborative working between colleagues has resulted in the sharing of a diverse range of speaking, listening and communication resources to be used with learners across the region which make effective use of the digital tools available.

  • 15. Promote the benefits of technology and support learners in its use

    Our project shared with colleagues who, perhaps previously, held sceptical views relating to the use of digital tools in their delivery and shared more widely across the West Midlands region how these same tools could be used effectively to enhance their delivery of Functional Skills English qualifications.


This project was carried out (and report written) by Ashleigh Whitwell (Project Lead) and Ellie Whitehall (Project Deputy).

With thanks to their mentor Lynne Taylerson and Research Group Lead Bob Read, for their support.


Appendix 2: Learner case studies

Appendix 3: Project Padlet


Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) (2021) Digital Technology in Prisons: Unlocking relationships, learning and skills in UK prisons. London: CSJ.

Crabbe, M.J.C. (2016) Education for Offenders in Prison. Journal of Pedagogic Development Volume 6, Issue 3.

Prisoners’ Education Trust (2021)

TES (2021)

Prisoner Learning Alliance (2020)


Using simulations to build essential digital skills in prison learning


This project evaluates the use of simulations to support learners in developing digital skills in practical contexts previously excluded in prisons, for example, performing online transactions, accessing social media. It also considers how prisoners with digital design skills can be involved as ‘learner-designers’ in the production of simulation prototypes.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


Simulation is often used in education and training when access to the ‘real thing’ is notAn image of a 'smartphone simulator', a tool made in Powerpoint and used in prison contexts possible or involves risk, for example, pilot training in aviation (Masson, 2021). We were keen to explore the potential of using digital simulations for Essential Digital Skills (EDS) delivery in the Prison Education Framework (PEF) context where public protection is a priority. Simulations can provide a safer, more accessible and richer learning experience and can also be more cost effective as they can be accessed on-demand, at the learner’s convenience. We wanted to find out whether these potential benefits could be enjoyed by learners and staff on prison education programmes.

Other Contextual Information

Novus had already developed a concept resource to simulate the functions of a smartphone which this project used a starting point of our research activity. We planned to test this smartphone simulator with learners as the first stage of our research into the use of simulations.

A Padlet board was used to collect and collate evidence from the project including screenshots of simulations designed, tutor, officer and learner feedback, research methodology details and potential next steps.


Phase 1:

We identified areas of the Essential Digital Skills (EDS) qualifications that prison learners find challenging (e.g., online transactions) and reviewed our past experience in using digital simulations and in involving learners in collaborating on their designing simulations.

Phase 2:

We met with the design team at the Digital Creation Centre to identify which simulators would be most valuable for learners and to plan the first steps in the design process. We created a feedback form for use with learners, colleagues and digital learning specialists who piloted the existing smartphone simulator. We also carried out research into how simulations can be made for enhancing digital skills development in the prison context.

Phase 3:

We piloted the smartphone simulator and gathered feedback from learners and officers and, with a view to planning for sustainability, we used the findings to begin to form ideas about the possibilities of creating this type of content by expanding the extent of our collaboration with HMPPS. The response was very positive – “It’s had a really good response! Particularly with learners who aren’t quite confident with tech etc. Comments such as, ‘I didn’t know you could do that,’ would come from learners who didn’t know that you could perhaps use your phone to tap and pay in the same way as you would with a debit card.” “When I first was introduced to the simulator… it inspired me to try and create my own interactive resources using PowerPoint I have since made a mock-up of a Twitter feed and this is a regular template I use to deliver lesson content.”

Phase 4:

The CCCs were given ideas for possible simulation development including a Zoom interface, a conference call, a Trip Advisor rating site, a My Builder interface.

Design work was begun on prototypes. See below for examples:

An email client simulator

An email client simulator

A photo filter application of the smartphone simulator

A photo filter application of the smartphone simulator

A video call simulator

A video call simulator

An online transaction simulator

An online transaction simulator

Extensions of the original smartphone simulator to include web browsing

And extensions of the original smartphone simulator to include web browsing

Extensions of the original smartphone simulator to include online banking

…and online banking and payment options.

However, it proved difficult to be able to transfer simulations from the CCCs due to the low bandwidth on site. This meant further feedback from learners was limited to the original smartphone simulator.

In light of this bandwidth issue we decided to utilise the CCCs in a different way, developing another questionnaire based on Brookfield’s 4 lens reflective model (OCSLD) (2013) to gather feedback from learners and staff about their role in the design of the simulations.

Screenshot of a twitter chatPhase 5:

We began to extend our professional network and signed up to present a session at a Digital Sprint CPD conference hosted by the LTE Group,

We also took part in a dedicated Twitter chat as part of a weekly #ukfechat. Our topic was simulation use and digital skills learning in prison:

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

The feedback from both learners and tutors on their experience of using the smart phone simulator was very positive and encouraged us to continue to plan to develop similar resources. You can read feedback comments from learners in the image on the from both learners and tutors on their experience of using the smart phone simulator

Tutors were equally delighted by the impact it had on learners. One tutor (see Appendix 2) completed our first Digital Literacies lockdown CPD programme and introduced the iPhone simulator into her sessions once she returned to face-to-face delivery. She said the learners were ‘amazed’ by the interactive phone. One learner who has been in prison for 18 years ‘had never seen anything like it!’

Another tutor agreed that the phone simulator would be ideal for learners to use as an introduction to phone technology, especially for any learners who have not had a smartphone. They also suggested that other simulations could be created with Facebook, WhatsApp and other platforms being careful with the content that is showcased.

An officer supervising these learners commented that simulations allowed them to experience the hands-on experience of digital tools for the first time. She added that participating in a discussion around smartphone use was really useful to allow learners to understand how digital tools now inform so much of our personal and working lives e.g., shopping travel, paying bills, seeing a doctor, staying in touch with family.

Organisational Development

We have benefited greatly from regular meetings with our colleagues working on two other OTLA research projects (2b and 2c) as we have been able to discuss the key features of simulations as teaching and learning resources whether they are paper-based or electronic. We intend to continue develop these links with staff in different vocational areas.

In particular, our project activities with colleagues in our Content Creation Centres have provided us with opportunities to provide further advice and guidance on simulator design and the use of simulations around the prison estate (and further afield). This will assist in the modernising of the e learning available to prisoners on the Virtual Campus 2 platform or in other institutions.

Ideally, we would aim for each studio to be working together as one department so we can utilise the strong members of the teams. We still have some system and bandwidth restrictions but the team are looking into resolving those issues and there is the ability to share assets and work across the centres through MS teams.

Learning from this project

Input from prisoners using the phone simulators was very valuable in helping to determine the ideal target audience for these tools. We now know that older prisoners serving longer sentences greatly appreciate exposure to tools and interfaces which are entirely new to them. Younger learners recently in prison are already aware of mobile technologies and how to use them so find them less engaging and valuable.

Tutors who introduced the simulators in their lessons reported how the activities provided opportunities for learners to acquire not only the skills involved in using the device but to develop their understanding of key vocabulary associated with the everyday tasks in shopping, travel, banking, use of social media e.g. download, upload, tweet, Bluetooth.

The smartphone simulatorFindings from our own project together with discussions with colleagues on our two other OTLA projects also confirmed for us some of the key features of effective simulations whether they are paper-based templates, PowerPoint slides or electronic interactive software.

Authenticity, use of colour, accessible and simplified layout are important.

For example, after seeing how engaged learners were in using the electronic smartphone simulator one tutor was inspired to create a Twitter feed template in PowerPoint that she now uses to present an overview of her lessons.

We have also learned much more about the potential of our Content Creation Centres to involve learners in creating or modernising courses by making them more engaging and interactive to the target audience. We need to balance the number of people working on projects with those who are being trained on the software.

Once we have a pool of skilled personnel, we can customise the teams as required for the intended project. This will allow prisoners performing design work to work with real clients on realistic industry projects giving them valuable, authentic work experience as designers.

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 4. Be creative and innovative in selecting and adapting strategies to help learners to learn.

    The project expanded on an existing innovation, the smartphone simulator, to design prototypes for a new range of digital tool and device simulations for use in prison learning. It also allowed prisoners with digital design skills to work in authentic commercial scenarios for a client to a defined brief.

  • 6. Build positive and collaborative relationships with colleagues and learners

    This project enabled us to strengthen the collaborative working between areas of different organisations in design and delivery of digital learning. In particular, the collaborative working between colleagues working on two other OTLA projects (2b &2c) has resulted in the sharing of perspectives and resources which in time will be used with learners across the region.

  • 15. Promote the benefits of technology and support learners in its use

    The project supported colleagues and prisoner learners in designing and using digital tools more effectively to enhance their delivery of prison learning and qualifications.


This project was carried out (and report written) by Claire Holland (Project Lead) and Steve Grix (Project Deputy).

With thanks to their mentor Lynne Taylerson and Research Group Lead Bob Read, for their support.


Appendix 2: Case study

Appendix 3: Padlet board


Gibson, D. (2009) Digital Simulations for Improving Education: Learning Through Artificial Teaching Environments. London: ISR

Masson, M. (2021). Use and Benefits of Simulators. EASA Community. [online] EASA Community. Available at:   [Accessed 12 October 2021].

Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD) (2013) Brookfield’s lenses [online] Available from: Accessed on 25/02/2022.

Skills for Life (2021) Essential Skills – digital. Skills for Life. Available at:  [Accessed 16 October 2021].

West, S. (2021). How to use digital simulations to prepare students for future careers. Times Educational Supplement. Available at: [Accessed 12 October 2021].