Teaching behind bars

The work is challenging - but not as much as you might think, writes Susan McDonald. And prisoners can be more fun to teach than teenagers

Could you teach in prisons? Would you want to? The job is not easy, the pay is not terrific and, what's more, because prisoners don't have holidays, there are no terms so you get only four or five weeks' leave per year. The other drawback is that you have to carry keys. Classrooms and access doors are kept locked at all times. A priority on security training is to show teachers what it feels like to be locked in.

So why is it that so many sign up for it? Shirley Hughes, who works on the University of Plymouth's Cert.EdPGCE programme - probably the only one in the country to include a module on teaching in prisons - says that when she first gingerly agreed to become part of the university's prison teaching team she was amazed that her idea of what prisons and inmates were like was transformed.

"When one man who I knew had been found guilty of killing his wife succeeded in passing the course, I didn't know who was more thrilled: him or me," she says. "It was then that I was hooked, realising that it was not the crime that was important but a prisoner's craving to soak up what we were able to teach."

Phil Bayliss is Plymouth's senior lecturer in post-16 education and training and a prime promoter of prison education throughout the country.

He says that the prison module gives those who want to try it out the chance to work with their prison teaching team.

"Learning to communicate with offenders, including those who are disturbed, is essential - and so is the teaching of softer skills, such as art and cookery, because they often ease a prisoner's way into learning," he says.

He recently set up a masters programme, training qualified teachers and experienced instructors in prisons to disseminate their knowledge to colleagues. It is proving popular.

Tracey Hocking, who has taught law inside as part of the access-to-higher-education programme, says that anyone thinking of teaching offenders shouldn't be put off. "I have never felt threatened," she says.

"There is a need for gifted prison education teachers and a large number of those who do the job find it so rewarding that they stay despite the drawbacks. Those in prison stumble through the classroom door much more easily than they would do in the outside world."

"Many first-timers show no interest in education because they're sure they'll never be back inside," says Jackie Kennet, who has taught various GCSE- equivalent programmes. "But second or third-timers see life passing them by and grab at learning as a way to change this.

"It's not easy for people with criminal records to get jobs, so I have also been teaching prisoners to set up their own businesses."

She came to the work after secondary teaching; prisoners, she says, can be more pleasant than teenagers.

Plymouth University's team works with Strode College in Street, Somerset, which sends teaching staff to 13 of the area's prisons. The college this year staged evening information meetings aimed at enticing primary and secondary teachers to the work. Of the 200 staff who turned up, 72 chose to experience 40 hours of teaching in prison. The majority of them were then taken on. Only two decided to drop out.

Jackie Thomas, deputy director of the college's offender learning services, says: "We found that the widespread talents of those chosen has allowed the curriculum in several of our prisons to be expanded and better aimed at certain types of prisoner."

In one prison, they started a business studies class; in another, a supply teacher taught willow sculpturing. In a unit with a high proportion of travellers, they started a pilot horse-whispering scheme. It was called a waste of time by some, but it taught inmates how to manage their own anger before learning to work with horses.

The Cert.EdPGCE programme that Ms Hughes teaches inside prison is aimed at increasing qualified teacher numbers in prisons. Extraordinarily, inmates, prison managers and prison officers are taught alongside each other. "The prisoners might not necessarily be able to use their teaching qualification but just having it, and being taught alongside prison staff, is a terrific boost to their self confidence," she says.

Prison education is now seen as an important way of reducing reoffending by both the Government and the prisoners themselves. However, says Kerry Brimecombe, prison placement co-ordinator for trainee teachers, because prison transfers are frequent and the curriculum can change from prison to prison, many inmates have difficulties in completing their courses and are beginning to demand that they be allowed to stay in the same place until they finish. This is easier said than done because transfers are seen as a prime way of cutting down on overcrowding, the bane of the Prison Service's life.

So changes are needed to improve prison education. As far as many teachers are concerned, the new prison education contracting system is simply causing more confusion. The idea is to better integrate learning and skills, both in custody and in the community, but many have difficulty in understanding how it works.

Steve Taylor, director of the very active Forum on Prisoner Education, explains that each of England's nine prisons regions is now allowed to choose the way it organises its teaching. There is a recommended programme, called The Offenders' Learning Journey, to follow.

Even more confusingly, education in the five Welsh prisons is now to be placed temporarily under the authority of the Prison Service. Scotland, of course, has its own legal and penal system.

Added to this, many teachers feel that they are often paid less than colleagues in the mainstream sector. Research by the forum appears to confirm this. Based on TES job advertisements, prison teachers could be earning between 3.5 per cent and 10 per cent less than their equivalent mainstream post-16 colleagues.

Moves are afoot to sort both problems out but some valued prison teachers are leaving. Ms Hocking is abandoning her part-time prison teaching job for a full-time, mainstream teaching job because it offers a higher salary, while Ms Kennett has decided to take a sabbatical and join her husband in his new short-term overseas job until things in prison education become clearer.

Chris Brimecombe is prison education co-ordinator in the South West and husband of Kerry. He accepts that this temporary confusion is a lot for administrators and teachers to cope with, but it will be sorted out, he says. The real Holy Grail is to stop re-offending at the petty crime stage by giving prisoners a better future through linked education in prison and afterwards . "To achieve this we definitely need more quality teachers in prisons," he says.

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