Prisoners still being failed

28th April 2006 at 01:00
Prison teachers are fed up with low status, pay and a government that won't listen to sensible ideas to improve learning, writes Lilian Pizzichini

As a writer-in-residence in a Category B prison, I try to introduce offenders to the world of books, ideas and, if they can't read or write, storytelling. I work closely with the education department and am dismayed by what I have seen there.

Teachers in the prison service are under almost intolerable pressure.

Targets and statistics are what the Home Office wants from them. Yet what is clear to teachers in prisons across the land is that "soft targets" are more effective with this group of difficult, demanding but ultimately rewarding learners. This means writing plays and stories, producing magazines, radio programmes and theatrical productions.

The creativity required for such work channels frustrated energy, the teamwork involved develops trust, the use of language and exploration of ideas helps with literacy and broadens horizons. Being treated as equals by professionals gives offenders positive role models.

But prison teachers are bogged down in reaching basic skills performance targets. This means that it is people like me who come into prisons to teach writing, sound-editing, or using music - creative projects with skills that can be used in the workplace and lead to qualifications. But these are short-term projects brought in by charities.

The teachers are not given the same status as FE college lecturers, although they have the same postgraduate qualifications. They are also paid up to Pounds 5,000 less than college peers.

Poor pay and job insecurity leads to high staff turnover, which leads to a chaotic education department, the last thing learners and teachers need in an already chaotic system.

This is not the real issue, however. Prison teachers want their status, as well as that of their learners, to be recognised as equal to that of students and lecturers in adult education.

Prison teachers are dealing with complex, intelligent individuals who need individual attention. Prisoners are not used to receiving "positive attention" and when they do, they flower like spring daffodils. It's incredibly moving.

Facts first: the Government has failed to implement the recommendations of the House of Commons education and skills select committee. The committee published its findings a year ago, and said the state of prison education was "unacceptable".

Research by the Forum for Prison Education indicates that the Government has effectively ignored the recommendations for reform. In its report, the select committee made 55 recommendations. Among these was a request "that education should be understood in 'broader terms than just improving employability of the prisoner', and should therefore benefit from a broader curriculum".

This recommendation has been ignored. Instead, a green paper, Reducing reoffending through skills and employment, published in December 2005, indicates a focus solely on skills for work. This is despite the fact that the forum has stated that no perceptible progress has been made towards researching the true skills requirements of offenders.

More than that, the select committee stated that around 60 per cent of all prison education was judged "inadequate" by the Adult Learning Inspectorate.

The forum makes a point that resonates with the inmates I work with:

"Prisoners are still punished by lower pay for taking part in education rather than work." They conclude: "It doesn't take a green paper to sort that out." Some prisoners simply cannot afford to come off the wings and into education.

Of the 55 recommendations made last year, 26 have had no action at all taken on them, with only four being met.

Offender education is one of the most effective tools in the fight against reoffending. Teachers in prisons are doing this work for law and order. And they're doing it at cut-price rates.

That the Government should be keen on reducing the crime rate and the number of people in prisons while at the same time ignoring recommendations on offender education is a nonsense, and exposes their criminal lack of (apologies here for use of jargon) "joined-up thinking".

Furthermore, I am moved to report that almost every piece of writing presented to me by an offender is fascinating and moving.

Some have an implicit understanding of form and structure and deliver a narrative that displays innate story-telling skills. Others show an eye for detail that reveals their affirmation of life and beauty. Some cannot write and do not attempt to, but their eloquently fragmented pieces speak of their pain, joy, hope and despair.

You cannot bullshit a prisoner and they do not bullshit you. When a man has everything taken away from him, he is left with himself. And that is what I see. They want to learn and if they can't, they say so.

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