21 July 2023
In this blog, PLA member Sharon Davidson tells us what it’s like to work as an Open University tutor in prisons. Sharon worked as a police officer, and directed the Criminal Justice Joint Inspectorates, but teaching in prisons – she says – is her most inspiring role yet.
This the sixth 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’m an associate lecturer for the Open University, the largest higher education provider in UK prisons. We’ve been delivering higher education in prisons for the past 50 years so we have some idea about what’s needed. Higher education in prisons is funded either by the student taking out a student loan (like students on the outside), or applying for a grant from a range of charitable institutions. Either way, the student cannot access higher education unless their release date is within 6 years of the first day of the first academic year of study. This is very restrictive and something many organisations are campaigning to change.
I’ve been hanging around criminal justice in various guises for many years: first as a police officer (80s), then as a local authority licensing officer (90s), in criminal justice joint inspection (00’s) and ultimately (and most inspirationally) as an associate lecturer for the Open University (OU).
I now tutor on higher education business studies modules in prisons, and it has become the passion of my life! I’ve moved from having 1 prison learner in a wider group of 25 students, to having 30 prison learners this year spread across 3 modules at all three levels of degree education.
I now tutor on higher education business studies modules in prisons, and it has become the passion of my life
My first step into education was in 2014, when I discovered that I could opt in to tutoring students in prison just by ticking a box on a form every academic year. I leapt at the chance, knowing that I was already familiar with the environment and that education in prison was one of the key ways of reducing reoffending and at the very heart of an effective rehabilitative process.
I applied and was accepted and I’m so happy I did. It is truly inspirational, for learners and for me too! This world is fast moving and the skills you learn in higher education programmes can open so many doors upon release in terms of making better decisions, it’s unreal.
The skills you learn in higher education programmes can open so many doors upon release
I remember my first ever prison tutorial, it went a bit like this:
I drove an hour and a half to get to the prison, early, because I knew it would take a while to get in and see my student … sure enough, it did!
I could only take paper and pen inside, so my usual tutoring props of laptop and internet links to a range of module resources was useless. Instead, I forwarded the assignment tutorial slides to the establishment beforehand, as a means of framing a discussion with my student on the day. This worked really well as a common focus for us both. He could scribble notes all over them!
I was introduced to my student (it’s a one-to-one tutorial, very similar to how they do them in Oxford or Cambridge), and we got to work on the module information I had forwarded. He was keen, diligent, and very on top of his coursework (my prison students are often in the top 5% of my module group performance overall).
My prison students are often in the top 5% of my module group performance overall
The discussion we had about the module material he was studying was rich and insightful. It was a fast-moving adult-to-adult discussion, easily comparable to (and sometimes exceeding) the classroom discussions I have on the outside. The time literally flew by. My role is to facilitate learning and we do this collaboratively, through conversation. Some of the questions he asked were as probing, insightful and challenging as the best I’ve ever had. I learn too, e.g., how to rephrase concepts, how to put them into a whole new perspective, and how to position what is routine on the outside, into meaningful examples on the inside. Win-win!
I am never on my own with my prison students, the prison education officer sits in but does not take part in the discussion. I feel totally safe, am escorted everywhere and can have a very deep and academic conversation with my student on the 1:1 ratio we provide.
For me it was an exhilarating experience. I had to sit in my car for half an hour to process the way it had gone. I was fascinated about the depth of thinking we had undertaken in such a short time, and had to return to a state suitable for driving the hour and a half home!
Many times since, I’ve reflected upon this with other tutors of Students in Secure Environments (SiSE), and it’s not particularly out of the ordinary. Many feel the same as I did all those years ago, and still do now, about the value OU tutors bring to this process and the real benefits resulting to both learner and tutor alike. Only very recently I heard a fellow OU tutor say:
For prison learners, the tutor is about the future. This is one of the few people a student meets who has nothing to do with their past
I hope someone reading this will take that leap and sign up for an OU degree module, or find out about becoming an OU prison tutor. It will be the best decision they will ever make, for all sorts of reasons.
Sharon Davidson is an Associate Lecturer in the Faculty of Business and Law at The Open University Business School.
To read more about the Open University in prisons, click here.
© Prisoner Learning Alliance 2023