Prison educators: 70% want to leave within 5 years

Exclusive: New survey of prison educators reveals a crisis in retention, pay and conditions, and training

Kate Parker

Prison educators: 70% want to leave in two years

Almost seven out of 10 prison educators want to leave their roles in the next five years, a new survey has found.

The survey, conducted by the University and College Union and the Prison Learning Alliance (PLA), has highlighed the staffing crisis in prison education

The responsibility for prison education lies with the Ministry of Justice, which then awards education delivery contracts, currently to four main providers in England: Milton Keynes College, Novus, People Plus and Weston College.


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The survey, which received more than 400 responses from those teaching in prisons across the UK, revealed educators were unhappy about pay and conditions, progression routes into higher roles and their influence over the education on offer.

An overwhelming majority of respondents – 87.9 per cent – said that “better pay” would help to keep prison teachers, while nearly two-thirds – 64.3 per cent – said more opportunities for career development would mean they were more likely to stay in their role. Almost half – 49.6 per cent – of respondents believed that feeling safer in the prison would make them more likely to stay in their role.

The report said: "In many prisons, the regime does not prioritise or even facilitate education. Many prison teachers feel a lack of support from the prison staff they work with and in some places, morale is low, which, in turn, impacts on learners’ experience of education and their outcomes."

Professional development for both new teachers and existing educators was another issue commonly raised. More than half – 58.6 per cent – believed that new prison teachers were not adequately supported in their role, and three-quarters – 75.3 per cent – don’t believe time currently spent on prison educator training is sufficient. 

When asked about motivation for their roles, most educators said it was about helping learners to improve their self-confidence.

One said: “Watching my students achieve something academic, often for the first time in their lives. I mainly teach entry-level students who have avoided classrooms their whole lives. They don't think they can do it, but they can.”

Another added: “‘Time spent with the learners (face-to-face classroom teaching), helping them to discover that they are not stupid, can enjoy learning, and can use it to open up more possibilities that don't involve crime.” 

However, due to the contracting rules of education provision, the influence educators have over the content they teach is limited. And the survey found over half – 50.4 per cent – of respondents believed that having more autonomy to develop the prison education curriculum would be beneficial.

The report calls on the Ministry of Justice to see to it that the commissioning process for education ensures that conditions, salaries and pension entitlements are at the very minimum equivalent to further education in the community, and to develop a coherent sustainable strategy to recruit and retain prison education. 

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: "If the true purpose of prison is rehabilitation, then education is essential in providing learners with the tools to break the cycle. That can only be done with proper funding so prisons attract, train and retain excellent teachers. We need to see specific training for those educating prisoners, who often have complex needs and are taught in a completely different environment to college settings. Teachers also need clear career progression and proper emotional and wellbeing support due to the pastoral role they have in prisons.  

"Unfortunately, the current model of prison education means the funding needed to enact these reforms is unlikely to arrive. The government needs to acknowledge the commissioning system has failed, and end the outsourcing scandal which is leading to a workforce crisis. Experienced teachers are leaving the profession, and it is becoming difficult to recruit because of the poor pay and conditions compared to other educational settings. A truly rehabilitative prison education system needs to be properly resourced – for the benefit of educators and learners alike."

PLA chair Professor Tom Schuller said: "The findings of this report clearly demonstrate the need for the Ministry of Justice and education providers to work together to support prison educators more effectively. A coherent, sustainable strategy is needed to recruit and retain teachers in prison. Resources for prison education need to be sufficient to ensure that appropriate facilities and digital technology are provided, so that learners get the opportunities they need and a culture of learning can be supported." 

A Prison and Probation Service spokesperson said: “We recognise the challenge of teaching in jails and are developing a Prison Education Service that attracts and retains the best talent.

“Governors now have full authority over their curriculum – giving teachers more opportunity to help meet the needs of their prisoners, turn their lives around and protect the public.”

Prison education: the recommendations in full 

For the Ministry of Justice

  1. Commissioning processes for education should ensure that conditions, salaries and pension entitlements are at the very minimum equivalent to further education in the community.
  2. Contracts should include adequate time for administration work, class preparation, training and development of prison teachers.
  3. The MoJ should work with PGCE providers to develop a specific unit on teaching in prisons.
  4. The MoJ needs to develop a coherent sustainable strategy to recruit and retain prison education, working with education providers but ensuring that there is also ownership and input from senior prison teams. 

For HM Prison and Probation Service

  1. The prison service should develop a formal induction process for prison teachers, to be carried out by the host prison and that enable them to develop a good understanding and knowledge of prison operations.

  2. The regime should be changed to facilitate better engagement with education and class lengths should be equivalent to those in the community.

For education providers

  1. Teachers need sufficient time for class preparations and administration tasks.
  2. More support and/or oversight is needed for some managers and concerns from teachers should be given full consideration and fully investigated.
  3. Consideration should be given to employer admin staff in education departments to support the monitoring and recording functions.
  4. Prison teachers should be offered opportunities for clinical supervision and therapeutic support.

For governors

  1. Implement processes to consult and involved education staff more in regime delivery and planning.
  2. Promote opportunities for officers and teachers to work together on projects and for teachers to communicate with key workers.
  3. Involve education teams in all decisions about activities regime and allocations.

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a schools and colleges content producer.

Find me on Twitter @KateParkerTes

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