02:58, December 06 562 0 theguardian.com

2017-12-06 02:58:04
Teaching in alternative settings  Teaching in a prison: 'Education has the best chance of turning lives around'

I’ve been a teacher at Feltham prison – an institution for young male offenders – for two years now. I work with 15 to 18-year-olds, but only a few of them stay with us throughout those years. The average sentence served here is about four months, so the group changes frequently.

The actual crimes committed vary; it could be anything from shoplifting, theft or graffiti up to rape and murder. A lot of people ask me why I do my job – and say that the boys don’t deserve an education because they’ve committed crimes. But as I see it, if you’re in prison at 15 you can’t be solely to blame. These boys have been failed somewhere along the line. I believe education has the best chance of turning these young lives around, preventing more crimes being committed on release, and enabling offenders to become valuable members of the community.

Most of the boys have had negative experiences in school, too, so it’s a massive challenge to engage them in an education environment they haven’t chosen for themselves. Many are either on academic or vocational pathways. We can’t enrol pupils on a GCSE programme because we’re not going to have them for the whole of the academic year – but if they’re part way through a qualification when they enter prison, we can take over the teaching. Last year a boy took 19 GCSE exams while he was at Feltham.

Some teachers move between prisons, but I’m at Feltham all day, every day. The boys in my class are quite often vulnerable, or need a quieter environment because of their learning difficulties or disabilities – having the same teacher and learning environment works better for them.

All classes have a maximum of eight pupils, so each boy is getting more attention than they would have had in school. We’re contracted to teach them for 30 hours a week – more than the average full-time course in a college, although sometimes the boys get called out of class for legal or social visits.

I’ve never felt that I was at risk or I wasn’t safe. The prison staff are fantastic; I know that if I have an issue within my class the officers are going to be there in an instant. Working with some of our low-level learners – some of whom haven’t been in education since primary school – can be challenging, though. I’ve had to teach 16-year-old boys how to write their own name.

The restrictions with technology and resources are also tough. We don’t have internet access and can’t use USB sticks. We’re not allowed scissors or even pencils with a metal top. We have interactive whiteboards, but we can’t use PowerPoint presentations on them because they’re not linked to a computer. I enjoy it, though, because you have to be adaptable and find ways to make the lessons interesting with the resources you have.

A highlight for me is when we get to meet the parents during legal visits. I’ve had mums thank me for looking after their son when they can’t. It also gives you a boost when you’re working with a boy and you see the penny drop – when they have that realisation that they can do it. It’s not just about the English and maths, but helping them find some self-worth; that’s what makes it all worthwhile.

Last year, I won an Outstanding Teacher Award from the Prisoners’ Education Trust, and the nominations came from the learners – it was humbling to know they’d taken the time to write a letter. Another lovely part of the job is when boys get in touch to say they’re back at college or in a job. We’ve got one boy who’s got a full-time job in Lidl, one who’s working for a music production company and a lot of boys who have gone into full-time education. For them to take something positive from such a negative experience is really important. That’s why I do it.

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