26 May 2023
In this blog, PLA member Esther Kelly shares how she went from primary school teacher to Reading Strategy Lead for five prisons in the North West of England. It is the first in a series – routes into prison teaching – highlighting the variety of careers in prison education, and the variety of career paths leading towards them.
I never thought I’d be a teacher and I never thought I’d work in prisons. I went to university as an easy way to escape a rural upbringing that didn’t really suit me and did an English degree for no real reason other than I enjoyed reading and school said I was good at writing essays. And then I drifted.
It took a significant life event to jolt me into realising that I could and probably should do something with more purpose. I had been fascinated by the way my children had learnt and developed and I’d tutored others who’d gone on to good things, so I embarked on a PGCE in primary education.
Towards the end of my course, a friend and I went to a careers fair attended by a large number of supply agencies and a company called Novus. I was attracted by the large, hessian tote bags on their stall and two men there told me that primary teachers make great prison educators due to the level of English and maths they are used to teaching. My friend told me that her mum taught in prisons for a bit and had loved it. I said thanks for my free bag and thought it looked good for carrying lots of books.
There were many things I liked about being a primary teacher, particularly teaching reading and story time at the end of the day
There were many things I liked about being a primary teacher, particularly teaching reading and story time at the end of the day with everyone cross-legged on the carpet, tired but enthralled by the other worlds that were coming to life through words and pictures.
However, I struggled with the constant pressure of 60-hour weeks and the slowly dawning realisation that, no matter how hard I worked, I would never meet the impossible demands of the job. Eventually, I decided to get out.
It was at this point I remembered prison education and thought I’d give it a go. Unsure where to start looking, I googled ‘prison teaching Novus’ and saw an English tutor position available at HMP Liverpool. I applied during the Christmas holidays and waited.
I heard nothing but was later contacted by HMP Hindley about a cover tutor role. I wasn’t sure at first as I was used to the financial safety of a full-time job but thought it was worth going to the interview for the experience.
Armed with my Novus tote bag full of resources for my demonstration lesson, I arrived at Hindley not knowing what to expect and did my best not to look too wide-eyed with curiosity at my first time in a prison. The interview went well, and I accepted the job thinking I could use school supply teaching as a back-up if it didn’t work out.
My experience with teaching at primary schools was invaluable in informing lessons with emergent reader adults and those acquiring basic English skills
I needn’t have worried. After completing an induction at Hindley, I actually ended up at HMP Liverpool teaching entry English and ESOL full-time and never had to approach a supply agency. The men on the Novus stand were right: my experience with teaching at primary schools was invaluable in informing lessons with emergent reader adults and those acquiring basic English skills. I love the honesty of prison teaching. If your learners don’t agree with something, you’ll know about it but, equally, they’ll also show real appreciation for a well-planned lesson and understand the effort you’ve put in. In a moment of open reflection, I realised that I was better at teaching adults than children. I found it easier to level with my learners and be myself without the performance aspect that comes with primary teaching. I found with focus and hard work I could get everything done onsite and no longer had to work every evening or at weekends. The holidays were shorter but were entirely my own. I also grabbed the many opportunities for professional development that came my way: a CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) qualification, leading two OTLA action research projects and a management secondment.
In March 2022, Ofsted published a report highlighting the improvements needed to support the development of reading throughout prisons. In response to this, I moved into a new role and now manage the reading strategy for five prisons in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire. It has a wide remit and involves researching assessment, developing a reading curriculum and managing specialist tutors, collaborating with writers, poets and theatres as well as working in partnership with a range of prison staff. I have been able to use my previous training and experience to full effect and thoroughly enjoy the variety and autonomy of this position.
Moving into this sector was definitely the right decision for me and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to find my niche
Working in prison education is not without its challenges. Which jobs are? Moving into this sector was definitely the right decision for me and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to find my niche. I don’t have my Novus bag anymore though – I broke it putting too many books in it.
© Prisoner Learning Alliance 2023