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Prison is no bar to a low-paid college job

LOOK, anyone can make a mistake, although I suppose Al's was a bigger mistake than most. Al is not his real name, of course, for reasons which will become apparent.

Al was an FE teacher and, back in 1990, found himself sentenced to 15 years at Her Majesty's pleasure for his "mistake". After a term or two, his head of department noticed he wasn't turning up for classes any more and, reluctantly, decided to take him off the payroll.

Then, a couple of months ago, Al got out. Before he left, Al went to see the prison's careers adviser.

"You're middle class," the woman said after a few minutes. "I suggest teaching or the church."

"I'm not very religious," Al told her.

"Teaching it is then."

"I used to be in FE," he said.

"Excellent," said the adviser, "that counts for teaching in penal institutions. Just tell them that you've been in jail for 10 years. They will value your breadth of experience."

At first Al found it hard to find a job to apply for. He showed me the adverts. "Look," he said. "There's jobs for pathway leaders, area co-ordinators, projects officers, and training consultants. There's development team leaders. But no lecturers."

"Those are the lecturers' jobs Al," I said. "These days you're expected to do all those other things as well."

In the end, he applied for a post as an educational programme initiator. At interview, he was asked all about his attitude to retention and achievement statistics, development strategies, action plans, quality files and course review documents. Al told them he'd been in prisons for the past 10 years and they didn't have anything like that there. "They will," the panel said to a man and woman. Then they told him how much they valued his experience and the obvious contribution he'd made to widening participation.

When it was his turn, Al asked why they hadn't asked him any questions about teaching. They explained that the college had only just been inspected so nobody was going to be bothered about teaching for at least another four years.

To Al's surprise, he got the job. Apparently there were no other candidates. "Things have changed," Al said. "Ten years ago, people were queuing up to get out of schools and into colleges."

"Ye," I said.

Before starting, Al had a long talk with his new section leader. "Now," his leader said, "what about your targets?"

"I don't think I've got any," Al replied.

"Shush," said the man. "Someone might hear. But please don't worry. We will fix you up with an off-the-peg set. Then we will be able to see if you can deliver on them."

"Aren't you supposed to hit targets?" Al queried.

"Well, no, most of the time you're expected to miss them. But that means you can set the same set for the following year. You'll soon get the hang of it."

Al was shown where the registers were kept. As he tried to walk off with his, he was accosted by a zealous-looking young man.

"Where are you taking that?" he demanded.

"To my classroom," Al protested. "It's my register."

"But you're a teacher aren't you?"

Al confessed that yes, he was now employed to empower the client group via the facilitation of high-quality learning experiences.

"Well then. You're the last person who needs it. I'm your tracker and that's the information systems manager in the corner. More than my job's worth to let a teacher have a register."

Al set off for his classroom but was diverted by his section leader into a room full of flickering screens. "Got to check your messages before you do anything," he said.

Luckily they'd taught Al all about e-mail in prison. "Look," he said, "I've only just started and already there's 137 messages, all of them unread."

"That will be copies of all our college policies. You can't go into the classroom without knowing about your policies can you?"

A week later, Al finally met his students. "It was hell," he told me afterwards. "I didn't understand what was going on. Suddenly, all these bells and bleepers started going off. I thought it must be a fire alarm. Then half a dozen of them started talking into these funny little phone things. When I told them to stop they all looked at me as if I was mad and said: 'It's important!'"

"So, Al," I said. "What you're telling me is that it's a completely different job to the one you left back in 1990?"

Al thought for a moment. "Well, not entirely." He tapped his pocket. "The pay's the same as it was 10 years ago."

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