Sally Coates recruited some of the first Teach First graduates and is known for turning around a failing academy. Erwin James, from The Guardian, looks at whether she do the same for teaching in jails in this recent article on reviews over prison education.
“If he’d got his GCSEs perhaps he could have gone on to do something with his life. Because he failed, because he was in custody, he kind of went over the cliff. I knew that when he came out he wouldn’t go back to education. I was really furious about it. When I saw the secretary of state, I said to him: ‘Somebody should look into education in prisons because it’s really awful’. A couple of weeks later I had a call from his office asking me to do it. I didn’t know a lot about prisons at that time, but I do know a lot about education.”
Coates’s review, to be published this month, will recommend the creation of a graduate scheme along the lines of the Teach First programme, whereby graduates spend two years working as prison officers before going off to pursue other careers. They will link up with Cambridge university to do two years of an MSc alongside their prison work. The graduate officers will get 10 weeks intensive training, including basic teacher training – so instead of just being turnkeys they will be educational helpers on the wings. “This will put education at the heart of the prison not just in the education block,” Coates says.
As a headteacher, Coates recruited some of the first Teach First graduates. “After two years 50% of them left to go and work as bankers etc, but the other 50% loved the work so much they stayed on and some are heads now. That’s what I’m hoping will happen with our prison graduates.”
Coates wants to go to universities in September and recruit graduates for the scheme, provisionally named “Unlock-ed”. “We’ll tell them: ‘Learn great leadership skills, work with some of the most disadvantaged people in the country, give something back and then go off and pursue your career.’ We’ll get people who wouldn’t normally see the prison service as a career, just like with Teach First, and hopefully some of them will get the bug and want to go on to be prison governors or work in other areas of the prison service.”
Coates’s report will also recommend that prison learning should be modular rather than linear and that prisoners are able to take their driving theory tests while in prison. She wants more incentives for prisoners to learn, by paying prisoners doing courses the same wages as they would receive in a workshop, instead of less than half.
Prisoners will have an initial educational assessment when they enter prison and will then be provided with a personal learning plan. “It’s about getting qualifications that lead to work wherever possible. Basic numeracy and literacy if they need it, and then it will be in the governor’s gift to allow them to study up to level three four and five if they have the ability. But mainly it’s about being able to go on and get a qualification to get a job.”
At present long-term prisoners and lifers are not allowed to study for a degree until they are six years from a release date. Coates says that will end: “We’re recommending that if someone can get a degree and qualify in prison there is no reason they can’t become teachers in prison, not just a peer mentor, but a real teacher.”
Coates is best known for turning around the failing Burlington Danes academy in west London. Controversially, she introduced “rank ordering” of pupils, showing where each stood in relation to each other, and rigorous testing up to six times a year. She was heavy on discipline and punctuality, with detentions given for being even a few seconds late. “It compels students to ensure that they are on time,” says Coates. Five years after she took over as head, in 2013, the school was declared “outstanding in every category”.
During the course of her prison review, Coates and her team of 12 visited 30 institutions. She spoke to governors and prison officers, and went to education departments to speak to prisoners and teachers. When I ask what she thought was missing from prison education she has to think hard: “Any kind of pace. In a school or a college there’s a pace, an energy, an outcome. There’s enthusiasm. But in the prison classrooms, it didn’t seem to matter.”
The most demoralising class she went into she says was a maths class. “There were about eight men in the room with a teacher. Some were stretched across their desks dozing, some were leaning over their chairs, they just looked so bored and lacking in energy. They had exercise books with very little in them. One man complained that he wanted to be a painter and knew that he needed to know how to use a tape measure to measure walls. He’d asked if he could have one in the class but he’d been told they weren’t allowed because of some incident some years earlier. The whole education block in that prison was just depressing.”
Coates sees prison education as vital to rehabilitation. “I totally believe there are consequences if you behave badly. But people are in prison as punishment not for punishment. If you just shut a person up for however many years without trying to help them to change for the better, then you’re likely to get somebody worse coming out. If you’re the victim, it’s hard to accept people in prison benefiting in some way. We’ve put in the report that reoffending costs society somewhere between £9bn and £11bn a year, with court costs, police lawyers etc. So it’s worth investing in rehabilitation so there are fewer victims and reduced financial costs to society.”
“They can have reading groups on the wing, they can really bring education to the heart of the prison. They’ll come out after two years with almost a master’s qualification and we hope some will stay. And those who go on to industry, well they’ll have a great understanding of prisons and prisoners, and hopefully will employ ex-offenders and encourage others to do the same. They’ll have more empathy.”
Coates is very positive about Gove’s plan to give prison governors more autonomy and introduce prison league tables, which will include assessment of education provision. “Once we introduced accountability and league tables and transparency of results in schools everything changed,” she says. “Every teacher that teaches an exam class is held accountable for the results, and we should be more like that in prisons. So as the head is held accountable, so the governor should be held accountable.”