Revealed: The reality of teaching in a prison

Prison education reform may be on the horizon: but with poor pay and conditions, no access to resources or CPD, will there be any educators left to deliver it?

Kate Parker

Prison education: what's life like as a prison educator?

“If somebody said to me, would you recommend being a prison educator, I’d ask them: do you want to be in the lowest paid sector of further education? Do you want to work in awful conditions? Do you want to be in a situation, where every single year, at the whim of a prison governor, you can be made redundant?,” says Ted*. 

“If you manage to survive to the end of the contract, the likelihood is that you can be tuped over to another employer, and therefore could lose your pension. So a, you’re in a low-paid job, b, the conditions are awful, c, the threat of redundancy is always there, and d, you could lose your pension. That is what it is like working in prison education.”

Ted has been teaching in prisons for 28 years, and currently, he is teaching functional skills in a category C prison. He, like so many other prison educators, feels devalued and unmotivated and is constantly frustrated with the system he finds himself working in.

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For a long time, prison education has been forgotten by the sector. The responsibility for it lies with the Department for Justice, who then award education delivery contracts to four main providers in England: Milton Keynes College, Novus, People Plus and Weston College. 

The system has long been criticised for its inflexibility (individual governors decide what provision they want to offer, and then contract a provider to deliver it over four years), and its tendency to offer a very narrow curriculum of functional skills maths, English, ESOL and IT. 

But change could be on the horizon: in November 2020, the Commons Education Select Committee announced they were looking into what needs to happen to ensure prison education delivers the skills needed by employers and the economy. They are due to publish a report later this year, and it’s clear from evidence hearings to date that recommendations over provision will be radical. 

But what about the teaching staff who deliver the provision? With so many unhappy with pay and conditions, a lack of progression, and disregard for CPD – as well as their status and perceived value in the prisons themselves – will there be any educators left to oversee this much-needed reform?

“If things are left the way they are, prison education will die,” says Ted. “There will be disjointed, low-level courses, run by inexperienced providers who don’t have much overview. They will just do whatever they can to get bums on seats, and make sure they’re seen as providing activity for these men, women and children. That’s what it comes down to.”

So what needs to change? How can the lives of prison educators be improved? And how can prisons become an attractive area of education to work in?

Prison education: Pay and conditions

Pay and conditions are a good place to start: the National Careers Service estimates that the average pay of a prison educator is between £18,000 and £29,000. 

“My salary has only gone up about £500 or £600 in 20 years,” says Ted. “It's absolutely ridiculous. We’re the lowest paid in further education and we’re looking at a 20 per cent reduction in real terms since I started.” 

Sandra* agrees. She is an inclusion manager at a category A prison. 

“The pay is nowhere near enough. I'm paid a very, very, very low wage. I don't work five days a week anymore because I found it wasn’t cost-effective: I do 33 hours over the four days, which is a lot, and there’s very little or, actually, no work-life balance at all,” she says. “I’ve been doing this job for nearly 10 years now, and I’m not far from being able to claim my pension. I'm seriously thinking of asking to drop another day, but I don’t think they’d let me.”

And while in other teaching roles, staff have a clear progression route that comes with an increase of pay, Tony*, who works as a curriculum consultant in a category B prison, says there is little progression available for prison educators.

“Many feel they are set impossible tasks in an impossible role,” he says. “Conditions are really challenging and we're losing professionals because they can’t progress in their career or their salaries. They get to a point where they feel the conditions they are working in and the job they are doing is not in line with what they think prison education should be.”

Ted and Sandra agree, and say little value is placed on professional development, too. 

“When I first started, there was a couple of weeks' induction programme before you were actually in the front class, all of that is gone now,” says Ted. “There are very, very limited training opportunities: it's all about cost, and doing it for the least that they can.”

“The support staff have a meeting about three times a year, which is always quite useful, but apart from that, there’s no sort of CPD for support staff particularly. I don't think teachers do a lot of CPD,” says Sandra. “It's a weird environment to work in and you’re pulled in so many different directions: you’ve got the prison telling you what to do, and then your provider telling you what to do. You’re just trying to do the best for your learners, and it feels like the provider and prison just don’t care about you, or them.”

Physical conditions and access to teaching resources

Being trapped between the prison governors and the education provider has adverse effects on the physical conditions and access to teaching resources, too. 

Tom*, who teaches in an open prison, says he and his colleagues still work in temporary portacabins, one of which has no electricity on one side. “The education provider won’t pay for the electricity to be put in, and say it’s up to the prison, and the prison says, no, we’re not going to spend money on that,” he says. 

And Sandra says during the summer at her prison, “it’s like working in an oven”. 

“There’s no air conditioning or anything, and it’s a fight for the fans, most of which are broken.  At another prison I worked at, it was similar conditions there,” she says. “In the server room, there was an air conditioning unit put in, which does not work either. They just don’t consider air-conditioning for us a priority.” 

Access to teaching resources, too, is limited. “There’s absolutely no investment in resources for the education department. We used to have an industrial photocopier which the prison paid for – they stopped paying for that, and we've one printer that we connect computers to now to service the whole department,” says Ted. 

“The prison service will spend millions of pounds on capital projects, but they won’t give you 50p to buy more A4 paper. The access to teaching materials is completely limited, and as budgets are cut, that won’t expand in any shape or form.” 

Tom says he prints everything on recycled paper, because the educator refuses to allocate funds for proper paper. And while in other classrooms, resources can be viewed on screens or learners’ devices, in prisons, resources are still confined to traditional pen and paper. 

Digital infrastructure and the introduction of in-cell devices for prisons is being considered by the Ministry of Justice, but Ted doesn't think it will improve things for staff. 

“Like most things around funding, we're trying to do double the work, with half the amount of staff,” he says. “There hasn’t been any definition of what will be expected in a blended-learning model, either by HMPPS or by any of the employers. The workload issue is one of the main issues in FE, but it's particularly relevant in prison education. If we go from previous examples, we know that with the introduction of digital technology, they will want more for less. They always do.”

Prison educators: 'We aren't valued'

Pay, conditions, CPD, access to resources: these are all factors that could be tangibly changed if the powers that be had the desire (and funding) to do so. What isn’t so straightforward, however, is changing how staff believe others perceive them, how valued they feel by their employers and those who run the prisons. 

“Prison educators are completely forgotten. We aren’t valued for the work we do: it’s in very difficult circumstances, with a very difficult cohort of learners, who are challenged academically and personally. Issues on the ward are often bought into the classrooms, too,” Tom says. 

“Even in terms of annual leave, teachers on the outside get much more annual leave than any teacher in prison, even though you could be doing exactly the same job as someone in a school or college. And actually, with the conditions we work in, we should be valued more. Because access to resources is very limited, we have to be very creative and innovative about the way we do things.” 

Sandra says she doesn’t feel valued at all: “For me, it's the fact that I've been doing the job 10 years and I'm still not at the top of my pay scale and they won't put me on the top of the pay scale until I jump through several hoops. Governors say they prioritise education above everything else, but they don't prioritise what we do, or the conditions we work in.”

So why do they do it? Why do these teachers stay in jobs in which they are clearly unhappy when they could teach elsewhere in the sector? The answer is simple: it’s all about the learners.

“It's because we get these personal interactions, it’s because we feel we can make a difference to these people, and make them change. Not because we like working to a timetable and the pressure of having to get as many people through level 2 maths and English as we can,” says Ted. 

“It’s about actually seeing a positive difference, but most of that is not done through formal education, that's done through personal interactions. The achievement of educational goals isn’t the sum of what we do in prison education. It's almost a by-product of the difference we are trying to make to these people's lives. 

“That's what keeps people in: they do care about students and do care about rehabilitation, and want to help them make a better contribution to society. But the way prison education is going with the funding, it’s taking away from that more and more."

And that’s the kicker: if the opportunity to make a difference shrinks further – and the reality of teaching in a prison continues to take its toll – how many prison educators will there be left to oversee reforms?

*Names have been changed to ensure anonymity

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a schools and colleges content producer.

Find me on Twitter @KateParkerTes

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