New kids on the block

Trainee teachers are going to jail in the West Country - and they are in no hurry to break out. Martin Whittaker reports

Ex-policeman Terry O'Connor is getting a taste of life on the other side of the fence. Once a week he walks through the security gates of Channings Wood prison in Devon alongside officers starting their shift, to teach maths to inmates. He had qualms at first: he had retired 18 months before and thought inmates might recognise him. But it hasn't happened. "They don't see me in the context of my previous career," he says.

Mr O'Connor has been an instructor in the police force, and before that in the Royal Marines, but says working at Channings Wood is "a real eye-opener". He says: "While you're teaching, you wonder what they're in here for. But you don't ask, and they don't tell you. If they want to talk about it, that's fine. I just look at them as students."

At 56, he is taking a post-16 certificate of education in adult education. And in an innovative course run by a partnership of prison service and further and higher education, he and fellow Cert Ed and PGCE students go to the prison for their teaching practice.

The scheme arose from links between the University of Plymouth and prison tutors. But the catalyst was the increase in trainee teachers' interest in the Government's pound;6,000 training bursary - students were having trouble finding teaching practice placements. The prison stepped in, and the result is a purpose-built course, which includes a 10-week module on prison education and 180 hours' teaching practice at Channings Wood.

Sixteen students took the course last year and 12 of them are now working in prisons. The scheme has been hailed a success, and has attracted the attention of both the Department for Education and Skills and the prison service. Organisers of the scheme hope that it may soon be extended to other prisons. And with the recent announcement of a pound;20 million government boost to inmates' education and training to reduce re-offending rates, those running the scheme note a new spirit of optimism in prison education - a sector which has long seen itself as a poor, and often overlooked, relation.

Channings Wood is a category C prison, which means inmates could not be trusted in an open prison but do not have the will or resources to escape. Set in the rolling Devon countryside near Newton Abbot, the buildings behind its high perimeter fences contain 600 inmates. The prison's education and training department is run by Strode College in Somerset, which has the contract to run education in eight other jails in the South-west.

Candidates for the post-16 Cert Ed and PGCE courses at Plymouth University's Seale Hayne campus are interviewed at the university and at Channings Wood to make them aware of the prison environment. "Few of them have been in a prison before," says Kerry Brimecombe, the course's support tutor. "We're strict about interviews because we don't want people in here who are uncomfortable or who could cause us any worry. We have to give the process the same consideration as when we appoint prison staff."

After a week's induction, student teachers spend a day a week at the prison, spread over the year. Their first few weeks are spent observing tutors and learning how the prison system works.

The education and training department runs a range of courses for inmates - literacy and numeracy, business studies, help with individual A-level and Open University courses, and an access course with the University of Plymouth. The prison tries to offer a balanced experience, including teaching on the prison wings (the students have dubbed this "wing-walking"), including the vulnerable prisoners' unit, which mostly houses sex offenders, the therapeutic community, which holds people with drug or alcohol dependency, or the segregation unit.

The work can be challenging but rewarding, says Ms Brimecombe. When she started at Channings Wood 15 years ago, two uniformed prison officers sat at the back of each class for security, but those days are gone. She says there is little violence between inmates, although panic buttons in the classrooms can be used in an emergency.

Most inmates have poor literacy skills. Ms Brimecombe says: "The basic education class is the most difficult. They're frustrated and angry that they haven't got that basic literacy and numeracy. In those classes we have people who can't read, through to the ones who can just about get to level 1.

"There's frustration, boredom, a shorter concentration span. But once we've got them switched on and they're reading, and able to write and do punctuation, and understand a book they couldn't understand before, you begin to notice a sea-change in their attitude towards education. The crucial issue is trying to motivate them at the basic level to get them interested in learning."

She says the student teachers have brought benefits to Channings Wood - fresh enthusiasm and ideas as well as extra pairs of hands to boost the education department. Many of them are mature students who bring in a wealth of experience.

Graham Perry, 46, managed a business before he tired of the pressure of working six days a week. During a break from teaching a business start-up course to a class of 12, he says: "Having never set foot inside a prison, you have a vision of somewhere like Dartmoor. But here it's nicely laid out and the facilities are good. Inevitably, you have some concerns on the first day. But the people you're teaching are no different to people you rub shoulders with in the pub."

Jaki Andrews, 51, worked as a therapist at Exeter Prison with inmates with a history of substance abuse, and came on the prison education course to supplement her skills. "I found I couldn't do therapy with the guys I was working with because they couldn't communicate; they couldn't write. I need to do this to get them to understand what a feeling is, to know how to communicate or write a sentence. "The course has been a revelation - it's fantastic. I still feel I'm doing the same job, but it's much more fulfilling."

At 23, Becky Quantrill is the youngest student teacher in this year's intake. She wanted a career in further education, but chose prison education after she saw the course advertised in her local paper. "I was a bit nervous at first - I'd never been in a prison. I didn't know what to expect. But you get a lot of respect from inmates, and you've got a nice environment to work in. I've had no problems. It's certainly better than working in a mainstream school. You get less grief."

Dr Phil Bayliss of Plymouth University's school of graduate studies in art and education, says while trainee teachers are doing one-off placements in prisons elsewhere, this is the first formal course of its kind. "I can see other universities and colleges taking it on," he says. "You can see the triangle of partnerships here between the college, the university and the prison. We'd like to develop it more, get our trainee teachers involved in vocational training here, so it's not just academic work and basic skills.

"If at the end of it they feel prison education isn't for them, they still have a generic qualification and they have their experience here. And if they can teach in prison, they can teach anywhere."

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