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Should prison officers be recruited to support behaviour in schools?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 19 October 2018

Amelia Roberts.
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.  

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4 Responses to “Should prison officers be recruited to support behaviour in schools?”

  • 1
    rogertitcombe wrote on 19 October 2018:

    What a terrible idea, if inevitable when people with little or no educational qualifications or experience are allowed to run schools within a business rather than an educational culture. No wonder the inmates rebel when schools are run like prisons. See
    From 1989 until I retired in 2003, I was head of an inner-urban comprehensive school that succeeded a brutal boys’ Secondary Modern in 1979. By my retirement, the school had undergone an HMI inspection in 1990 and OfSTEDs in 1995 and 1998. Each inspection report was passed with successive ones gaining better and better judgements especially for student behaviour.
    In the last few years of my headship there were no exclusions at all, temporary or permanent and our students had an exemplary reputation throughout the town, passing another OfSTED in 2004 under my successor.
    How this was achieved is set out in this article.

  • 2
    Amelia Roberts wrote on 22 October 2018:

    Thank you. I agree that brutal punishments and exclusions do nothing to help students regulate their emotions and behaviour.

  • 3
    rogertitcombe wrote on 22 October 2018:

    You are certainly right about that Amelia, but punishments don’t have to be brutal to be cruelly anti-educational. Have a look at this latest example.
    A secondary school has banned pupils from talking between lessons, threatening detention to children who break the rule.
    In a letter to parents, Ninestiles school in Acocks Green, Birmingham, said pupils would be expected to move around the building in silence when they return after the half-term holidays.
    “We know that behaviour is already of a high standard but we want and expect more from our learners, and so from Monday 5th November students will move around the building in silence during change over times,” the letter read.
    “This will ensure students arrive calmly and ready to learn and staff can give out any information they need to swiftly and easily.”
    “The sanction for breaking the silent corridor rule will initially be a 20-minute detention; any repeated failure to follow the school policy will result in an appropriate escalation of sanctions,” the letter said.
    This flies in the face of what decades of research have revealed about effective learning, which is about communication that has to be practised on the social plane before it can be internalised by students (Vygotsky) Read more on this here
    Talk is the essential currency of deep understanding and therefore effective lessons should encourage and provide opportunities for pupil-pupil discussion. And not just in lessons. Becoming articulate needs metacognitive rehearsal followed by practise in the social environment. It makes no more sense to enforce a silent school than it would a silent university.
    Schools cannot have too much high quality talk.

  • 4
    Newsround – John Dabell wrote on 26 October 2018:

    […] Should prison officers be recruited to support behaviour in schools? Take a look at the blog by Dr Amelia Roberts at the UCL Institute of Education. […]