Exclusive: Teachers encouraged to retrain as prison officers

New charity sees itself as the 'Teach First for prisons' and is calling on overworked school staff to consider a switch

If students expect to find a model answer, it discourages creative thinking, writes Yvonne Williams

A new charity has a bold proposition for teachers looking to cut their working hours but still do something socially meaningful.

The charity, Unlocked Graduates, is looking for talented graduates and career-switchers – particularly teachers – to train to be prison officers.

Inspired by the example of Teach First, it aims to improve prisoners' rehabilitation by enticing high-calibre individuals into the prison service through the offer of a two-year leadership development programme.

The scheme has already placed 52 people into adult prisons across London and the South East since launching six weeks ago, but it is expanding into two youth prisons in 2018 and wants teachers to apply for places on next year’s cohort.

The charity is the brainchild of Natasha Porter, an ex-Teach Firster and former senior leader at Ark’s King Solomon Academy, who now serves as Unlocked Graduates’ chief executive.

“I know as a teacher I had some children who I taught who I wasn’t able to reach, and some of them ended up in youth custody,” she told Tes. “I think quite a few teachers have had that experience."

She thinks teachers will be attracted to the programme by the chance to re-engage with “children further on through their journey, who maybe you haven’t been able to reach first time round”.

“Prison officers are the ones who hold the relationship, make the most difference day-in, day-out, and are able to really turn these children’s lives around. 

“Teachers are some of the professionals in our society who have the best skills to do that.".

Unlocked Graduates is particularly targeting teachers for its jobs in youth prisons, but is also interested in applications from any teachers who want to work with adult prisoners.

The roles will not involve formal teaching, but recruits will be able to “bring education to the landing” by helping the offenders with their homework and instilling the importance of learning, said Ms Porter.

Teachers 'know how to de-escalate situations'

And she pointed out that teachers will already have transferable skills for working in a custodial setting.

“Being able to de-escalate situations without using force, I think teachers know how to do that, they do that every day,” she said.

However, she accepts that it is a tough job – prisons can, of course, be violent environments to work in.

“People need to be realistic that this is not a pleasant environment, and that’s one of the problems and one of the things that we need great people in to change,” she said. But she added that those on the scheme will receive special training to enable them to deal with the threat of violence.

She thinks the job will appeal to a “certain type of teacher” – someone frustrated by the fact that they haven’t been able to help a vulnerable child as much as they might have done because they’ve had to share their attention with the 30 other pupils in the class.

Children in custody are undoubtedly extremely vulnerable. Almost half have been taken into care as a child, while 40 per cent have experienced abuse, and between a quarter and a third of young people in custody have a learning disability.

Ms Porter said the scale of the impact you can have as a prison officer is another appealing feature. “The thing you really enjoy about teaching is that you’re able to change someone’s life… But in prison you have a chance to do that in a massively amplified way.”

A prison officer can not only turn an offender's life around, but can also have a “huge impact” on wider society by reducing reoffending, she argued. And with 10 per cent of children in prison having children of their own, the positive impacts of rehabilitation cascade down the generations.

However, Ms Porter was also keen to point out some more immediately tangible benefits available for those who quit teaching for the prison service.

Prison officers will go in with a salary of £30,000, rising to as much as £35,000 in their second year, with the possibility to earn more via overtime.

And with a 37-hour standard week, Ms Porter said the working hours are “much better than when you’re a teacher”.

Recruits will receive a fully paid Masters in "leadership in a custodial environment", and Ms Porter pointed out that the progression to becoming a prison governor is “a shorter journey than becoming a headteacher”.

However, the charity is also happy if individuals leave the service when the two-year programme ends. "You could take the skills you’ve learned in prison and take them back into schools,” according to Ms Porter.

A driving idea behind the charity is to improve the outcomes for people who leave prison and struggle to get jobs, by increasing the number of people in leadership positions who understand the challenges of prisons and reoffending.

But is there any danger that poaching teachers for prisons could exacerbate the recruitment crisis facing schools? Ms Porter replied: “I think essentially we’re pulling towards the same goal. I think the numbers that we’re talking about, we’re not massacring the schools."

She added: “If they feel like in this job they can make a difference and have a career, which at the moment they don’t feel as fulfilled by, then we’d love them to come and work with us.”

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