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Is ‘Teach First’ a Step Closer to Academy Prisons?

Proposed reforms to the way prisons are run seem likely to bring the system closer to the “academy” model that the current government is clearly a champion of. Hot on the heels of the government’s edict that all schools in England will become academies by 2022, justice secretary Michael Gove announced plans last month that, on the surface, seem to signal that a similar overhaul will be coming to the prison system.

A new draft prison reform bill, due to be introduced during the Queen’s speech on 18th May, is expected to pave the way for reforms that will see the introduction of league tables and give prison governors greater autonomy – and accountability. Crucially, there will also be the provision for the administration of poorly performing prisons to be taken over by more successful institutions, in a similar way that failing schools have been put under the control of independent academy trusts.

The ‘Teach First’ Connection

Launched in 2002, Teach First is an employment-based teacher training initiative that recruits primarily graduates into teaching positions at eligible primary and secondary schools for a period of two years. Like many such schemes, it has been the subject of criticism and controversy, however its key goals seem admirable – participants in the scheme gain a teaching qualification, workplace experience, leadership skills, and can undertake an optional master’s degree. The scheme is also targeted at schools where children are socially or educationally disadvantaged, and boasts that in the past twelve years a million pupils from low-income communities have been supported by a Teach First teacher.

What has this to do with prisons? Quite a bit, if proposals raised by Dame Sally Coates come to fruition. Coates has a background in education and working for academy chains – most recently as Director of Academies South for the United Learning group – and last year was asked by Michael Gove to lead a review of the provision of education in adult prisons. Dame Coates’ report, due to be published this month, is set to propose the creation of a new scheme, closely modelled on Teach First, for the recruitment of graduates as prison officers.


The new scheme – provisionally titled “Unlock-ed” – would similarly see new graduates recruited into the prison service for two-year stints. Recruits will receive ten weeks of intensive training, which will include basic teacher training. The intent is that those participating in the scheme would effectively join the institution as both a prison officer and an educational helper, providing teaching and guidance both inside and outside the prison classroom. In Dame Coates’ own words: “This will put education at the heart of the prison, not just in the education block.”

In common with the Teach First scheme, this new prison education initiative aims to provide participants with valuable experience and leadership skills that will hold them in good stead regardless of whether they choose to remain within the prison service at the end of the two years, or move on to a different career path. Of course, the scheme is also designed to benefit prisoners by providing greater educational opportunities than most currently have access to.

Dame Coates’ report will propose additional reforms, including a move towards modular learning in prisons and greater incentives to prisoners – by rewarding those doing courses with the same level of wages as they would receive for workshop activities. It is hoped that an increased emphasis on education for adult prisoners will aid rehabilitation, with a corresponding positive impact on the burdens currently faced by probation officers, as well as the significant reoffending costs borne by the criminal justice system, which are currently estimated at up to £11 billion per year.

We’d love to get your opinion on the new Unlock-ed scheme and whether you feel it signals a move towards the academy model, so please leave a comment below.

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