Cinderella shines at the ball
Jerry Nightingale may claim to work in ‘further education’s poor second cousin’, but offender learning was thrust firmly into the spotlight when he picked up a Gold Pearson Teaching Award that made him FE Lecturer of the Year. Alan Thomson reports
If further education is education’s Cinderella sector, then offender learning is FE’s poor second cousin, says Jerry Nightingale. Not that you would ever cast Jerry as anyone’s poor relation having recently become the first offender learning teacher to be named FE Lecturer of the Year and receive a Gold Pearson Teaching Award. “I describe receiving the award as being very pleasantly surreal and humbling,” Jerry says. “But I don’t do anything differently to anyone else here and I could put six colleagues in my place as an award winner without batting an eyelid. “We are quietly getting on with things behind fences and bars: taking education’s failures and on a daily basis trying to get them to re-engage. “I might be loud and happy to tell anyone that cares to listen about the amazing things we do but overall I don’t think many people really know what we do.”
Jerry has taught at HMP Channings Wood, in Devon, for 12 years and currently delivers an EAL Cycle Maintenance level 2 qualification to inmates. Like many FE teachers Jerry previously enjoyed a varied career. “I spent 10 years driving lorries and before that farming and before that antique and metal repairs – I could go on,” he says. “But I’ve always had a talent for mechanical things. I was fixing my uncles’ racing bikes when I was a boy – and now I teach eight learners at a time on the six-week courses. “You’re usually dealing with people whose last experience of education was bad and sometimes horrendous. This course is about getting them back on the first rung of the learning ladder.
“It’s practical but maths and English are embedded in the course. We incorporate help with maths and English into what we’re doing so that it’s presented as simply what people do.
“If you were to offer most of the guys lessons in things like English grammar or trigonometry straight off they’d run a mile.”
Jerry says that three quarters of Channings Wood’s inmates are educated to level 1 or below. Nationally, only 53 per cent of the prison population has any qualifications at all. At the same time, almost half of all offenders reoffend within a year of release, rising to two thirds of under 18s. “Essentially, this is about trying to get the guys back on the straight and narrow,” Jerry says. “I’ve worked out that if something I do helps one guy stay out of the criminal justice system for just one year after his release then that pays for my wages and all the course certification fees, resources, bike spares and equipment for 18 months.
“Education and training is essential in reducing reoffending and colleagues in the Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service are striving for this up and down the country, day in day out.”
Jerry is the first to admit that teaching in a secure environment has its challenges, due mainly to the overriding security requirements. “If I want to use something in the classroom – perhaps a resource I’ve downloaded to disk – it has to be security vetted and that takes time,” he says. “But you work within those constraints. I try to be fluid as a teacher, ensuring I teach in a way that suits each learner. “You have to be able to judge people: to get into their head to be able to understand what will help them understand and switch them on to learning. “If something doesn’t work you instantly have to be able to present it in three different ways. You need to be able to seize every opportunity in the classroom. “And, with all due respect to my colleagues, you don’t get normal sorts of people teaching in offender learning.”
Jerry has certainly earned the respect of his colleagues and learners alike. Pearson judges spent a day at Channings Wood speaking to a number of Jerry’s students and colleagues before observing one of his lessons.
“The award is lovely and no one can take that away from me,” Jerry says. “But what was really humbling was having a judge come to me afterwards nearly in tears and tell me some of the amazing things my guys said about me. Even ones I had to put on report!”
Alan Thomson is editor of InTuition