'I'm furious about the horrendously poor level of education inside prisons'

In an open letter to Dame Sally Coates following her review of prison education, one teacher explains her frustrations and concerns

Laura Firth

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Dear Dame Sally Coates,

I wanted to start firstly by thanking you for your robust and thorough investigation into offender learning, and for shining a light on an area of the education sector which I feel has been somewhat forgotten about for a very long time.

It was nine years ago, more or less to the day, that I started working in a newly opened prison. We spent months in training for the opening of the prison, with the emphasis on pro-social behaviour, education at the heart of everything and, ultimately, reducing the reoffending rate. I used to sit in the training sessions and feel inspired about how good our prison would be when it opened, and we all really felt like we were at the start of something great.

I was one of the first education staff through the gate, and as a "trainee teacher" I was looking forward to shadowing a qualified teacher for 18 months before taking a class on my own. However, this never happened. On my first day, we got security clearance and I walked on to the education wing where I quickly realised I was the only teacher who could teach my subject. As I watched three other trainees walk off the wing and refuse to teach their class, I quickly decided that for me to succeed in prison education, I needed to take this opportunity and just go with it.

And that is exactly what I did. For four years I taught in the prison, and I loved it. I loved engaging with the prisoners, I learned how to be a great teacher and we had some truly outstanding lessons where I learned as much from them as they did from me. I had a great deal of respect for them. I wasn’t there to judge them – the courts had already done that, and I worked to engage even the most volatile prisoners, encouraging them to consider what education could offer them.

Punished for missing class

In my time teaching in prison I started my PhD on the lack of opportunities for people who arrived in the prison with level 2 qualifications or above. The subtext to my research was questioning who really benefited from prison education; the prisoner or the prison? I couldn’t help but conclude it was the latter, and whoever had the education contract.

I was left speechless at how poor education was, and sadly, how poorly trained some of the staff were. I was an enthusiastic new graduate with an MA in criminal justice, and I found a real love for teaching and loved being in the classroom. But I would pass classrooms where teachers were reading the newspaper while their class played scrabble, sometimes for five hours! I became incensed and would speak to my manager about the need for proper training but I was never listened to.

What I was most concerned and genuinely upset about was the complete exploitation of learners who had no choice in what education was offered to them. Prisoners being allocated a course, and if they didn’t attend, being punished for it. Prisoners being put through the same qualifications. It benefited someone, but sadly, not the person it should.

I met someone who had completed their level 1 adult numeracy and literacy 14 times. He had all the certificates proudly displayed in a folder and I didn’t have the heart to correct his assumption that he had a better standard of qualification because he had repeated it so often. I had to justify to someone with an MBA why they were allocated a level 1 business course because their initial assessment placed them at level 1. They had to complete it because if they didn’t come to class, they would be punished.

It was a travesty that money was being used in such a way. There is a severe need for a proper training, accountability and quality systems in the prison. There was a clear conflict between education and the prison at times, and I could never understand why that existed. Surely being in education benefited everyone? But who was actually quality-assuring what was going on in the classrooms on a daily basis? Who was accountable?

Autonomy, technology and training

After four years, I decided if I was to succeed in offender learning, I needed to work in mainstream further education to gain an understanding of how education should work, and this is what I did. I moved to be a curriculum manager at a college with an "outstanding" Ofsted grade, which just made me even more furious about the horrendous level of education I had witnessed inside prison. Now I’m working at the City of Liverpool College in charge of adult learning. In this position, and having completed a PhD in prison education, I feel I am well placed to start addressing some of the issues that I experienced in my time working in HMP, which were also mirrored in your report.

For me, the big issues which I think could be greatly improved – governor autonomy with education, increased access to technology and better training for teachers, are areas I identified in my PhD research, and ones I was ecstatic to read in your report. Hopefully these will now get the recognition they need for proper change to occur.

My PhD concluded that higher-level learning courses should be more accessible to prisoners, as well as student loans to fund them. There should also be better established links with local universities that deliver distance or blended learning courses. 

I really could go on for pages about the things I’ve seen and the injustice I feel in it all. But I wanted to share my thoughts with you, and to again thank you for your report. I am excited to see how these recommendations are put into practice by the government. The prisoner learning sector needs strong leadership and individuals who really believe in it; who understand its limitations but, more importantly, can take it to great places with the right kind of thinking.

Dr Laura Firth is head of access to higher education and teacher training at the City of Liverpool College. She will be speaking alongside Dame Sally Coates as part of a panel at the Prisoners' Education Trust annual lecture on 11 July

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Laura Firth

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