With declining rolls in primary schools and political parties desperate to be tough on crime, the prison population is one education sector that's expanding.
Prison education lecturers work in difficult conditions with difficult people, sometimes with little respect and support. However, it is improving. After some failed privatisation the Department of Education and Skills' offenders and learning skills unit has put prison education under the remit of the Learning Skills Council to be overseen by FE colleges and not private contractors.
Two-thirds of prisoners have literacy and numeracy skills at or below the level of an 11-year-old, and well over half have no qualifications. Basic skills are a priority, but there is now a realisation (House of Commons Select Committee Report on Prison Education, March 2005) that concentrating on this has put off many prisoners who have already "failed". Prompted by the Adult Learning Inspectorate, there are now moves to put back more creative, practical and vocational teaching.
Contact your local FE college if you're interested. A background in basic education, art, drama or vocational training is useful, but you need to understand the nature of working in a closed institution and the pressures involved. Are there enough warders on duty to escort the learner to your session? Will your students suddenly disappear - moved without warning from one prison to another, or called to court? There is also a small problem if you're claustrophobic... Motivation is essential as prison education is very isolating. For this reason, many teachers work part-time.
In a prison, you really could make a difference.
Next month: education journalist