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Ask any passionate and talented teacher why they chose a career in education, and they are likely to highlight the pride in inspiring, challenging and improving the life chances of their students. There are perhaps none in need of this energy more than those studying within the prison sector, but despite this, many teachers just have not considered a role in this environment. Are they missing out on a huge opportunity to fulfil their ambition to make an impact and leave a positive impression on people’s lives?

Through my decade long career as an education manager in one of Britain’s largest prisons, every day I see prisoners take on new skills and grow. Before entering the sector, I was teaching in a mainstream FE college, and on my first day, I vividly remember not being sure what to expect. I quickly found an exceptionally rewarding and wide-ranging career, giving prisoners the second chance at life that they may not otherwise have had.

Teaching in a prison environment requires the same qualifications as a role in an FE college – and our teachers have the same passion and commitment as a teacher in any other setting. What is essential, however, is creative thinking. We sometimes need to take unconventional approaches to allow us to overcome barriers that aren’t present in other teaching environments, so being able to think outside the box is a hugely important skill.

This creativity can come to the fore when delivering some of the more traditional subjects. It is common for our learners to have previously had a negative experience with education – or in some cases, never received any. This means we may need to take a fresh approach and teach subjects such as English and Maths through more appealing ways, using football or baking as a framing device. This is often an easier way for prisoners to access these subjects than through a textbook and notepad.

As part of this, the arts have become invaluable in helping prisoners to engage with the wider education process. Forming part of a personal social development programme, subjects like music can help increase motivation and self-confidence. The impact of this can mean prisoners completely change their outlook within a short space of time, and welcome other subjects that they had previously refused to engage with.

We have to remember that we are working in a prison and, as you would expect, this brings its own challenges. When teaching, you quickly find that a form of education that works for one prisoner just does not fit for another. But being able to tailor a learning programme to a prisoner’s needs allows them to make progress in their own way. The flexibility in our role means, depending on a learner’s needs, you could be supporting a student with anything from basic reading and writing skills, up to a university degree. As teachers, we are there to support them every step of the way.

What quickly becomes clear is that we are not delivering education for education’s sake. The ultimate goal is to make prisoners more employable on release – and we recognise our role in making this happen. Finding work is one of the most difficult things for an ex-offender to do, and they still suffer from an undeserved stigma. We work closely with local employers to make sure our learning programmes correlate with the skills they need, and this is where we see the power education has to break the vicious circle of reoffending.

One of the most rewarding parts of our job is when former students write to thank us for our support. This is where we can see exactly how our teaching is having an impact. Some of our former students have gone on to get stable jobs, reconcile with their families, and even start their own businesses. To help the reintegration process, we have dedicated employment brokers to help put offenders in touch with employers, find housing, and gain further external support.

While delivering teaching in the prison sector has its own distinct challenges, it is exceptionally rewarding vocation. It is unfortunate that many teachers are unaware that they can deliver teaching in this environment, but there are many opportunities for motivated, ambitious educators. For experienced FE teachers looking at a new challenge, or for newly qualified teachers looking for their first job, a career in prison education presents an opportunity to influence and improve the life chances of prisoners, giving our learners a genuine second chance.

Amina Bodhania, Education Manager, Novus

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Educating yourself in Prison: an inside job

Educating yourself in Prison: an inside job

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