Prison educators do not need to be told that the conditions in which they work are amongst the most challenging in post 16 education. And yet, many of us who do not work in that world are not so aware of their terms and conditions of work. UCU is working to raise the profile of prison educators but we can and must do more. This includes focusing on the issues that are unique to prisons, and, importantly, remembering that impacts on teachers and students in FE and HE affect prison educators and prison students equally.
Prison educators provide a vital role in educating and rehabilitating prisoners, who very often have had problematic education experiences, and troubled lives. As I talked with prison educators at various congresses, conferences and training events I was struck by their professionalism, dedication and commitment to the prisoners with whom they work. This in the face of being held hostage, threatened with knives, sexual assault, and witnessing suicide attempts – stresses that they normalise – such as teaching with an empty chair in their classroom because one of their students took their own life in the night.
Even though they can be subjected to abuse and violence, they tended to reserve their criticisms for their employers. They want to do a good job of educating their students. They want the resources with which to do that, in safety.
The lack of safety, the stripping down of the curriculum and the cowboy private sector running of prisons are key challenges. The recent ‘UCU Fund the Future: Prison Education – A Vision for the Future webinar’ ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FkPaFLVmLQ) is a great example of central support prison reps are now receiving: including, importantly, the appointment of a dedicated official. UCU’s H&S official is directly supporting local negotiations, which is key to their safety. This recently increased support for prison branches is a good start. I would work to build on that: there needs to be much more work from the union to listen to, amplify the voices of, and organise with, prison reps.
Prison educator’s working conditions are chronically insecure, as all of the prison education services (PES) have been outsourced to colleges and private companies. As contracts to provide these services are periodically re-tendered, management and terms and conditions can change, and importantly that includes pension providers. Whilst as a union we have been heavily focused on protecting the USS, more work should be done to protect prison educators’ pensions. Including dedicated support for prison educators retiring early on ill health grounds.
Profiteering and Privatisation
My daughter was, until recently, a probation officer working with soon-to-be paroled prisoners, she talked to me often about the privatisation of prison education and contracting out of services. She became increasingly alarmed about cuts in resources and staff, and the narrowing of the prison education curriculum. She knew as a probation officer that the justice system cannot be run for profit. Napo’s successful campaign has resulted in the government agreeing to renationalise the probation service – taking a leaf from their book we must fight to end profiteering in the justice system.
Prison educators have not been consistently supported, if I am elected as VP that will change. This is my pledge to prison educators:
1) As chair of NEC I would work to have protected space in national meetings to amplify and build prison organising and Adult Community Education.
2) I would fight the isolation of prison reps who have to work in their own time and away from the workplace. I would push for regional executive seats for prison educator reps and standing items on regional agenda to build cross union solidarity.
3) I would lead a national campaign on the prison curriculum. Linked to BLM – our prisons reflect the racist structures of our society which exclude and demonise black students. Now more than ever we must challenge that.
4) I would campaign for the implementation of the ‘Safe Inside Charter’ (https://edm.parliament.uk/early-day-motion/55678/safe-inside-prisons-charter): a really important part of improving T&Cs for our members. Everyone who lives or works behind the walls should be safe and have an environment that affords them dignity.
There are 4 UCU prison education branches representing all PEPs in:
Novus prison education branch is the largest FE branch covering 63 prisons across England and one prison in Wales.
Milton Keynes (MK) prison education branch, set up after Milton Keynes College took over a number of prisons from the Manchester College, their reps support more than 30 prisons.
People Plus reps cover 22 prisons and adult education for prisoners serving sentences in the community.
Weston College UCU reps cover 19 prisons across England in the South West, the South East region covering Avon and South Dorset, Devon and North Dorset and Kent, Surrey and Sussex.
More than 130 branches.
So what can we do to support those branches and our comrades working in prison and ACE education?
Please read the Safe Inside Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance Position Statement May 2019 (https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/10303/JUPA-position-statement-May-19/pdf/JUPA_position-statement_May2019.pdf) and the Safe Inside Prisons Charter and call on your MP to sign it. You can find your MP here https://members.parliament.uk/FindYourMP
In our branches we could pass motions supporting jointly agreed calls for action:
- Tackling violence against all staff and prisons including the targeting of violence against women workers
- an end to exposure of all staff to spice/psychoactive substances
- proper access to health and safety systems
- effective consultation with unions on risk assessments and safe systems of work
- safe staffing levels of prison officers and all staff working in prisoners to ensure that as a union we can support the Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance to achieve the objectives of prison education workers.
There is strength in numbers, we have those numbers, let’s use that strength.