September 29th 2023 is Hidden Heroes Day. It is a chance to recognise and thank all the people working in custodial and community justice settings in the UK. While they are often hidden from public view, they are not forgotten.
Charlotte Baker-Macdonald is an Assistant Director at HMP Dovegate. In this blog, she writes about her time leading the prison’s Learning and Skills function, and celebrates the work of her colleagues in what she considers to be one of the most difficult – and important – areas of the prison.
I write as an Assistant Director at HMP Dovegate in Uttoxeter where I currently lead the long-term residential function. I have been at Dovegate since 2007, where I started as a Prison Officer and progressed through the ranks. I have worked with a diverse range of people in prison, including those serving short, indeterminate, and life sentences, as well as people on remand, and vulnerable prisoners. I spent 7 years as a Prison Officer and then progressed to working as a Custodial Operations Manager for 2 years. I had experience leading Safer Custody, Residential, Healthcare and the Segregation Unit. Once I became an Assistant Director, I led Safer Custody, Residential, and the Learning and Skills function. I love what I do and I’m going to tell you a little bit about the reasons why.
I have led both operational and non-operational teams, inclusive of our fabulous Learning and Skills team – who I led between the years of 2021 and 2023. Whilst all of our staff make me feel proud of how hard they work, the job of the Learning and Skills team is one of the hardest within the prison, and I have full respect for their daily efforts and contribution to rehabilitation.
Around 47% of people entering prison have no prior qualifications. Nearly two-thirds (59%) of prisoners have truanted from school, and 42% were expelled or permanently excluded from school. Many prisoners have experienced little or no success with education prior to entering custody. PLA written evidence to the Education Committee Inquiry on Adult Skills and Lifelong Learning, 2020
Some of our prisoners are the least likely to want to engage in education, and so even the smallest of achievements in learning are huge for them. Any form of prisoner progression can only be achieved by a team of people who work tirelessly day in day out with motivation and passion for what they do.
We have some examples at HMP Dovegate of prisoners who fought against engaging with Learning and Skills, but ended up completing basic levels of literacy and numeracy and are now doing distance learning courses that are changing their whole outlook on life and giving them hope for a better future. Isn’t that what we are here for? Isn’t that why we work in a prison? To contribute to society by reducing risks that some individuals present and making our communities safer? We should feel proud that we are contributing effectively – not only changing individuals’ lives but making a valid contribution to society.
We often talk about qualifications being the most important ‘measure’, but my time leading Learning and Skills at Dovegate taught me that it’s about far more than this.
We often talk about qualifications being the most important ‘measure’, but my time leading Learning and Skills at Dovegate taught me that it’s about far more than this. People in prison often struggle with basic communication skills, become frustrated because they cannot write effectively (for example) and therefore struggle to build effective relationships. Prison education teaches this. Many of our learners achieve qualifications at a basic level, but have in reality achieved far more than the Entry Level Award. They have developed soft skills and learned how to communicate well, in order to get positive outcomes and help from other prison staff and external
agencies. This is HUGE and should not be underestimated.
People often end up in custody because there is quite simply nowhere else for them to be. Many have experienced trauma, engaged in unhelpful learned behaviours, or done something illegal in order to get help. Many do not know how to lead ‘normal’ lives. Our prison staff – particularly those in our learning and skills team – support people to change their lives. I honestly believe that it is the personal values of wanting to help others – that our remarkable staff hold within themselves – that achieves the biggest result. The ‘job’ would not be possible without that personal pride, perseverance and passion. We can’t buy that!
Our prison staff – particularly those in our learning and skills team – support people to change their lives.
This blog was requested following an event that I organised with the help of the Prisoner Learning Alliance at HMP Dovegate. It took place in February 2023. We hosted other civil servant colleagues from the region and spoke about the priorities for learning and skills nationally, amongst other topics. We heard from two of our learners at Dovegate who have taken different paths and had different, but positive experiences with Learning and Skills. We also gave our staff the opportunity to network; something that is rare for them, unlike the opportunities presented to teachers in schools in the community. The event was positive and made us reflect on how wonderful our education experts are!
Source – Website of Prisoner Learning Alliance, UK