23 June 2023
In this blog, PLA member Diana writes how – while preparing for retirement – she decided to volunteer in a prison, and eventually take on a role supporting people in prison to access distance learning opportunities. It is the fourth 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 started working in prison education as a volunteer. I had previously trained managers to run projects and programmes and had never worked in the education sector. I was preparing for retirement but did not want to give up work completely. I have always believed in the power of education to change lives so started looking for opportunities in the education sector.
I have always believed in the power of education to change lives
Whilst looking around I found an advertisement for volunteers to support prisoners who struggled with reading and everyday maths. I decided this might just be the job for me. As it turned out I thoroughly enjoyed my role as a volunteer. I did believe I was making a difference and decided I wanted to do more. I applied for a teaching assistant role within the prison and was offered the job. My role soon changed from supporting students in the classroom to facilitating access to further and higher education via distance learning. I have now been doing this job for 5 years on a part-time basis.
The role involves responding to requests to study further and higher education courses. Initial discussions take place with the applicant to find out what career they plan on release. Some are interested in going to university. If that is the case, I will help them to decide if they want to start degree level studies whilst in prison or to study shorter courses which would support a university application. Other applicants may hope to work in, for example, the finance sector and together we explore suitable courses that will be of value to them on release.
Students studying degrees take out a student loan. Other courses are funded by the Prisoners’ Education Trust. Some applicants will fund the courses from their own resources.
I am always delighted to help the student find their way around the course materials and get them off to a good start
My role is also to guide them on preparing for distance learning and, if approved for study, to ensure applications are processed in a timely manner. Once their application is approved and the course materials arrive, I will help the student to get started. This is an exciting time for both of us. I am always delighted to help the student find their way around the course materials and get them off to a good start.
I usually leave them to draw up a timetable for the submission of their assignments and will then revisit when they have had a chance to familiarise themselves with their course. We then agree the timetable between us. My role then is to monitor the submission of assignments, to provide a link with their external tutor, to supply any resources they need for study and to negotiate with prison officers and other staff if difficulties arise which are affecting their ability to concentrate on their studies.
Together we celebrate their success
The role is a very rewarding one. I await their returned assignments with as much nervous anticipation as the students. Together we celebrate their success. If the result is not as good as they would like, I help them to focus on the constructive feedback from their tutor and encourage them to continue to put in the effort needed to succeed.
It helps to understand that many people in prison have experienced a disruptive education and may have lost confidence in their ability to achieve very much
I would thoroughly recommend anyone to apply for this role. An understanding of the challenges of distance learning is helpful. If you have been a distance learner, you will know how difficult it can sometimes be. It also helps to understand that many people in prison have experienced a disruptive education and may have lost confidence in their ability to achieve very much. A coaching style of engaging with students is therefore valuable to help build their confidence and self-esteem.
© Prisoner Learning Alliance 2023