Routes into prison teaching: “I wanted to teach people who found learning difficult”

Home > Routes into prison teaching: “I wanted to teach people who found learning difficult”

09 June 2023

In this blog, PLA member Nigel shares how, while working as a lorry driver, he developed a love of learning, and began supporting people in prison to do the same. It is the third in a series – routes into prison teaching – highlighting the variety of careers in prison education, and the variety of career paths leading towards them.


I left school in 1980 without meaningful qualifications, and a poor educational experience. I bounced from one job after another with no career direction. That was until I qualified as a class one lorry driver. Driving allowed me to travel around the UK, Ireland and as far away as Morocco and Greece. I realised that I needed to know how my truck worked so that at least I could help diagnose problems. I, therefore, enrolled on a City and Guilds course in car repairs. Three years later, I gained full qualifications as a mechanic and student of the year. The course broke the spell that I couldn’t learn, and I enjoyed it.

The course broke the spell that I couldn’t learn, and I enjoyed it.

My tutor encouraged me to become a teacher, so I enrolled on the part-time City and Guilds course in adult teaching. Unfortunately, life got in the way, and I had to return to lorry driving full-time, but I kept an interest in teaching through scuba diving.

At forty, I decided to train as a driving instructor and spent the next seven years in that career. However, I met up with my college tutor, who encouraged me to join the ‘Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector (PTTLS) course again. 6 months later, I qualified at level 3. Moreover, I rekindled my love of learning, and with further encouragement and a student loan, I enrolled on the Level 5 Certificate in Education (Cert Ed) for two years. Although I loved the first year, my second year saw a new teacher. She reminded me of school teachers, and after the first session, I contacted my original tutor and said I didn’t want to continue. However, he didn’t wholly terminate my studies; he just suspended them. Although I missed my studies that year, the following year I returned. I discovered that although the new teacher was different, she was just as supportive – challenging, but I needed that.

I wanted to teach people who found learning difficult.

During the course, I wanted to teach people who found learning difficult. I gave up my driving school and volunteered at a local Special Educational Needs (SEN) school. There I learned to support children with different learning needs, and I loved it. I was later employed as a general teaching assistant. During this time, I enrolled on the BA (Hons) Education and Professional Development, still with my two original tutors. I also gained level 2 in functional skills maths and English, and signed up for a university foundation award in Learning Difficulties and Disabilities (LDD). I moved employment to work with adults with LDD diagnoses on the Personalised Learning Pathway (a further three years’ education for young adults with special educational needs, focused on the transition to independent living). While there, I attended college and gained my level 5 diploma in maths teaching. At the end of my degree, I was awarded Student of the Year and nominated for the national adult learner award.

While on a CPD course, I met a functional skills maths teacher from prison education. During our discussions, she talked about the men and women in prison who struggle with learning but come from those marginalised through poverty and education in society. I applied to Novus  to work as a functional skills tutor. Unfortunately, my employers wouldn’t let me have time off to attend an interview. I took a leap of faith and resigned from my position at Personalised Learning Pathway.

I received an invitation to attend an interview at a prison in the Midlands. I travelled down the day before and stayed with friends. I drove to the prison early, but when I parked the car and looked at the fence, I thought, what the hell am I doing? I nearly drove away; I didn’t. I went through security and was led to the education block. When I met Carolyn and Joe, these two managers interviewed me in a small office; I loved it – they made me feel at ease, and I just talked about my past experiences. Later I was asked to do a micro lesson for ten prisoners. I was nervous about meeting all these ‘dangerous criminals’.

I loved it; these were just ordinary people who wanted to learn.

I loved it; these were just ordinary people who wanted to learn. They supported my quest to become a prison teacher, and I work hard to be a role model and guide to all my prison students. I have been in the role for seven years and have worked at three different prisons and for two other providers. I have had many opportunities to progress; I was a team leader for a year. My studies have continued; I have a Masters in Education, and I’m now a second-year Professional Education Doctorate candidate with the University of Wolverhampton. My interest is to improve prisoner participation in basic skills education and better understand the prison learner’s barriers to accessing education.

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