Tuesday, September 06, 2011


As us educators settle in the hollow, we scan the ridges of the hills all around us and we see the enemy on the horizon, gathering strength, adding new recruits by the minute, darkening the skies. Words. Jargon words. Thousands of them. All are waiting to swoop down and smother us with meaningless verbiage, each with their own bureaucratic tasks and performance indicators. We look up and know our fate.

In dank offices, chained bureaucrats craft and polish their latest phrases, garlanding them with ugliness, removing any connection to reality. They hand them to their superiors who trail obsequiously to the dark lords whose malicious eyes gleam with delight as they carefully select the ones that serve their fiendish purpose – the eradication of joy. A sinister smile plays on their lips and they croak with a scarcely concealed delight, "issue a policy statement".

At least that is how it seemed to me when I found out that an institution I know and like had renamed its reading week, employability week.

And right on cue comes this splendid defence of educational values from Alan Smith, not as an expression of the decadent pursuits of an elite of aesthetes, but for those outcasts at the bottom of our list of social priorities. Prisoners.
Why would they want a job at all? Most of us don't want the jobs we have; we wouldn't turn up for work were we not bribed to do so. People tend to live for the weekend, for holidays; most of us skive and take sickies when we can. Anything but work. It is simply not convincing to offer work to men in prison as if it were the answer to their ills. I have found work to be the source of most of my ills and when I look at the faces travelling to work in the morning I see that most of you feel the same way. On top of that, many prisoners expect that the jobs on offer to them on release will be unpleasant and badly paid. 

Not many people are tempted by work and yet education is fading away in favour of employability. Employability has a robust, commonsense vigour about it that is lacking in philosophy, art, history, literature, but it is a delusion. I don't think that it does any harm to put schemes of training in place, in fact for people like the vacuum cleaner guy they provide opportunities for harmless fun, but don't expect them to do much good. Education always does some good; it opens the way for curiosity, delight and self-esteem. Most people are in prison because of neglect, damage and abuse; they do not need to know how to do a bit of vacuuming, they need to know what it is to be human. 
Those of us who have worked in adult education know this only too well and see it as universally applicable. Mind you, it is wrong to sneer at vocational training, this can be brilliant for lots of people. So, for example, a good shop steward's training course can be as liberating as the history that I used to teach. Both are education in the broadest sense of the term. It is all down to the quality of the course and ultimately what the student wants to get out of it. The problem is a narrowing of education and its bureaucratisation, an attempt to turn it into a controllable process with pre-determined outcomes. My experience is that, like most human activities, education is unpredictable, open-ended and lifelong. It ails when it is not free.

Even so, in our beleaguered state, it is great to see people like Alan Smith handing us some powder so that we can prime our rusting muskets as we prepare to make our stand.


Peter Risdon said...

I've been in prison in France (cannabis smuggling). What people there need is to develop the habits of work. In France, they can work, earn money and send it home to help support their families. This has turned lives around.

Education is very valuable, of course. Indeed, I taught literacy and IT to other English inmates while there in a formal classroom context. But to avoid the habits of crime you need to develop the habits of work. Nothing provides more rehabilitation; nothing does more to boost the self-respect of the individuals concerned.

This post is grievously misjudged.

The Plump said...

I shall paraphrase a brilliant prison educator of my acquaintance.

'If you give them the work training envisaged by the government for them and they get NVQ 2 skills, they can go out and get a job pulling levers to stick a cherry on top of a cake at Jacksons'. That was never good enough for them. That is why they are in prison.'

The tyranny of low expectations again. Prisoners are aspirational,entrepreneurial, ambitious, but not good enough or lucky enough to avoid getting caught. Many are trapped in cycles of self-destructive behaviour, whilst for some, lack of educational attainment is a huge barrier to work.

My experience is different to yours, several years supporting the delivery of Higher Education in prisons. Work would not have broken some of the cycles that were broken by education and re-offending rates were much lower from our programmes.

Outside prison, the difficulty lay not in obtaining the habits of work, but in getting a bloody job! The prejudice against employing ex-offenders is monumental, even if they come out and gain good qualifications. That is the hard part. And if what is offered is menial work with lousy pay, then crime as a career looks one hell of a lot more attractive.

So let's not generalise or be monist about this. Both can transform lives, but only if they are meaningful. The sort of cleaning described in the article I linked to is not a meaningful activity and thus is treated with scorn. The education we provided was so bloody inspirational. The word passion is overused these days, but it is the only word to describe the desire for learning that we saw. And, of course, it IS hard work. They put long hours of effort into it.

Though the post used an article about prison education, it was really about stupid bureaucratic directives. The latest is 'employability', a vacuous word if ever I saw one. The result is that, in order to satisfy the latest whim from on high, people are forced into inventing meaningless activities to tick the right box.

Meaningful work - yes. Meaningful - vocational training - yes. Meaningful education - yes. All are intrinsically linked. Meaningless bureaucratic tasks and jargon - well anyone can spot them a mile off and treat them with contempt.

So, I think that you have grievously misjudged the post.