Last month The TES revealed that prison officers are being sought by recruitment agency Principal Resourcing to deal with ‘behaviour issues and disruptions’ in Leeds, Bradford, Harrogate and Wakefield.
The image this conjures up is rather unfortunate, and one can’t help but wonder what some prison officers would do without the customary tools of the trade, such as lockable cells, handcuffs, tasers and solitary confinement. As Mary Bousted, joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, says in the TES story: ‘…the set of skills you learn as a prison officer are not necessarily transferrable to schools.’ Moreover, there is an unspoken implication that these young people are unruly and incorrigible, incapable of being helped and merely prison fodder on a predetermined pathway to incarceration.
On the other hand, some prison officers could carry out the behaviour support role in schools with aplomb. Recent research looking at prison education found that:
‘Most prison educators felt that, in addition to achievement, it was important to be able to develop the learning skills and self-image of those they worked with. As one said: ‘I would like learners to gain self-confidence and work on release and be able to network … Teaching has to reach the whole person’.
Our whole school Knowledge Exchange programme: Supporting Wellbeing, Emotional Resilience and Learning (SWERL), takes such an approach, and it’s not too late to join the new cohort starting in November 2018.
Many prison educators are adept at working holistically, even within the tight financial and logistical restraints common in the prison education service.
In the June 2018 Prison Officer of the Year Awards, Anna Whateley from the Bristol team was awarded ‘Probation Champion of the Year’ for being proactive, diligent, patient, kind and compassionate. Keith Potter won Prison Officer of the Year for implementing constructive activities to ‘help young people’s rehabilitation and resettlement’, including the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, the Fire Brigade LiFE course and community partnerships with local football clubs.
The message here is that what really matters is whether behavioural difficulties are met with compassion, understanding and constructive solutions rather than a purely punitive stance. It isn’t enough just to identify ‘triggers’ for poor behaviour. Even if the goal is to isolate these triggers with a view to avoiding them or teaching skills to manage them, we can still lose sight of the ‘whole’ person in this process.
We could instead be using a solution focused approach to identify when behaviour is positive and when glimpses of a young person’s passions and personality shine through, if only for a moment. These golden glimpses of compliance, or talent, or generosity or exuberance can offer opportunities for building relationships and getting to know the personalities and potential of the young people in front of us.
Carl Rogers, developer of ‘person-centred approaches’ to counselling and education spoke of the transformative power of genuinely liking somebody and being able to convey that warmth to them. He called it ‘Unconditional Positive Regard’. Sometimes we need to find the right activities and situations for Unconditional Positive Regard to flourish and for meaningful relationships to occur. Whether the person who facilitates this is an ex-prison officer or ex-firefighter doesn’t matter; what matters is that we stop thinking of keys to lock people up, and start thinking of keys to unlock people’s true potential.
Dr Amelia Roberts is Deputy Director of UCL Centre for Inclusive Education. She runs a whole school Knowledge Exchange programme: Supporting Wellbeing, Emotional Resilience and Learning (SWERL); new cohort starting in November 2018.