Sian Roberts started teaching at HMP Erlestoke, a category C prison in Wiltshire, in 2016, where she is employed by Milton Keynes College. This followed several years working in industry, gaining a University of Bath BSc and MPhil in biology in her 30s, and then spending 12 years as an English, maths and science tutor
I caught the teaching bug when I was asked to teach undergrads while completing my MPhil. I gained my PGCE (postgrad teaching certificate), taught for a couple of years in a private school, and then tutored for 12 years, covering English, maths and science up to A-level biology. Then I wanted to be back as part of a teaching team and a friend encouraged me to apply, successfully, for a job at the prison. Two years ago I paid to take a six-month QTLS study programme to recalibrate my professional standards.
Outreach education around the all-male prison augmented by covering for fellow lecturers, i.e. providing English and maths functional skills courses in the prison’s internal ‘college’, who are absent. I work mainly with hard-to-engage learners aged from 20 to 60+ in the prison’s residential ‘wings’ or in workshops. Many prisoners have a psychological or physical barrier to a classroom environment; they find that sort of learning too tough, maybe because of awful experiences at school etc. They may have learning needs, low self-esteem or poor confidence levels and thus find it too hard to enrol on a course. My job is to build up their self-esteem by raising their confidence, skills levels and knowledge so that they can join in a group in a teaching setting.
Hours are around 8am-5pm when I’m taking five-week functional skills courses. I have one cohort of eight learners every morning and another in the afternoon. Each session is three hours long so you have to be inventive to keep the learners engaged. Sometimes we stop in the middle and play football, dance, have a sing, or discuss British values or current affairs — some discussions are very in-depth and intellectual as the prison is full of creative people - poets, artists, songwriters, you name it.
I help learners identify the skills they have. So many think they can’t do anything, but on a five-week course, it’s amazing what can be achieved. I have an enthusiastic team of trained peer mentors, who are prisoners with level 2 qualifications. I plan which mentor goes with which learner, set them targets and send them out to work across the college.
In my main outreach work, I visit the prison ‘wings’, where the prisoners have their rooms. In one day I might see three learners/self-isolators on a wing, see two people in a workshop and three more, say, in the college. It can be between three and eight a day. I generally spend at least an hour with each person.
I recently set up a maths group on a wing where people do not want to come off for whatever reason. It’s a lovely thing to do. You get four or five men who have agreed to work together in a group down on the wing and have a maths session - I’ll talk to some who are self-isolators (those who don’t come out at all) or visit the prison workshop and encourage people to attend the college. Sometimes prisoners want to get up to speed on their basic skills in maths and English before taking a five-week course. They need quite a strong knowledge base before starting maths and English at entry level 3, to progress on to level 1 (GCSE grades E-D/2-3) and level 2 (GCSE grades A*-C/4-9). It’s all preparation for life and employment.
A typical day might include leading a group of entry-level learners who are upskilling their reading. We might have a reading group, work as a small group, or one to one. A peer mentor might have one learner or have a guy who has just finished learning to read and then write. It’s a complete mixture. I also do resits so if anyone fails an exam. I will revise areas with them that they need to upskill before resitting. Most pass the second time around.
I was able to tell a learner he had passed his entry-level 3 English. He said it was the first time he had remained on a course long enough to gain a qualification. He will undoubtedly benefit from his achievement both in confidence and self-esteem; he has chosen to remain in education.
Interaction, fun, humour (which they just love) and allowing them to be creative on their own. Plus innovation and something different (not school-based), so I try not to use many worksheets. They like showing what they can do: one recent learner was fond of poetry and drama so I asked him to read a poem relating to a particular, culturally-themed month. If I know a learner has a particular skill I encourage them to share what they know to build up their confidence. One strategy that works well is to ask a learner to ‘take over’ and teach their peers a concept - the more I can get learners to come to the front to talk and write on the whiteboard, the more confident they become in work and life skills, such as holding discussions and public speaking. I always stress we are working together as a team - it’s true adult education.
I had an outreach reading group with learners who had learnt to read with the Shannon Trust, a voluntary organisation using trained volunteer prisoners as mentors. One man in the college wrote a short story which we photocopied on an A3-size piece of paper and separated it up between seven men who’d learned to read. The group spent a month learning their bit, then attended a Shannon Trust open morning, where people receive certificates and celebrate the workbooks they had completed. They all stood up and read out their parts of the story individually. I was so proud - it was a lovely moment. The power of learning to read is phenomenal, it’s life-changing.
Endless patience, plenty of energy, open-mindedness, seeing prisoners as learners in their own right, forgiving, positive and not being judgmental! Also, don’t let anyone down like saying you’ll write them a reference and then don’t. Being innovative and adaptable is key, as every five minutes is different … what you have planned that day may never happen! Be prepared to teach anywhere; be it on a bench in a garden, an allotment, wing, classroom, workshop, anywhere …
You normally need a degree and a PGCE - but you can also come in if you have a wealth of experience in a vocational subject and then gain a teaching qualification sponsored by your college once you’re in post. Learners go on to do level 2 qualifications before applying to do distance learning HE qualifications in subjects such as business management, sports physiology and accountancy. One guy has just got his law degree.
Making a difference and knowing I’m able to help someone realise what they can achieve. Even just entering the college doors for the first time and then going into the library is, for some people, a huge challenge to have overcome.