The adults detained at the hospital I work at have a range of mental health conditions and cognitive profiles, including special education needs and disabilities (SEND). ‘Forensic’ refers to contact with the criminal justice system.
I decided to work towards Professional Formation for two reasons: the step up it offered in professional status – supported by my employer—and the sustained opportunity to take a step back and think about my teaching. It had been seven years since I completed my PGCE (combined Literacy/ESOL, post-Compulsory).
The Professional Formation process, which I undertook in 2020-21, had a huge impact on me. I’d like to share some aspects of this experience both with the wider post-compulsory sector and with teachers working in forensic settings, or, indeed, any kind of ‘alternative’ provision.
Professional Formation made me think a lot about what it means to be a part of non-mainstream provision, both for my learners and myself. I’m using ‘alternative’ loosely, here, to describe types of provision and settings which may elsewhere be referred to as ‘non-mainstream’, ‘challenging’ or ‘informal’.
There has been some inspiring research into these kinds of settings—notably in the context of prisons. Some of this research has been intended as a basis for initial teacher training. However, to my knowledge, there are currently no such specialist pathways available—for prisons and related ‘offender learning’ settings; inpatient and community healthcare settings; and charity community settings, at adult ITE level.
This continues to feel like a problem. And nor is it as if these settings are a homogenous bunch: they each support learners of considerably varying profiles, making distinct, specific demands on the expertise and resilience of the teacher.
However, research has identified a number of common themes that emerge in some of these spaces. LONCETT’s 2008 Initial teacher training project for teachers and instructors in prison and offender education cites factors including the precedence of the environment over other considerations (Simonot et al, 20018, p. 13); the ‘prisoner-learner’s relatively fragile identity as learner’ (Simonot et al, 20018, p. 14); and differentiation (Simonot et al, 20018, p. 14).
A forensic hospital, where I work, is a custodial setting, and has in common with other custodial settings that the demands of the environment are prioritised. Nevertheless, as a teacher of ‘mental health service users’ observes in HUDCETT’s Good Practice Guide for training teachers to work in challenging settings (2009):
“It’s important to know that people (the learners) are no different from anyone else. That the course they are on teaches skills that are useful for everyone.” (Rennie, 2009, p. 10)
Consequently, in a forensic setting, we encounter a tension between the particular needs of the service, and the fostering of patients’ identities as learners with universal learner needs. As teachers in this kind of environment, we therefore find ourselves involved in an attempt to balance these priorities.
A critical part of seeking to foster a patient’s identity as a learner involves the reflective, boundary-conscious and clinically-supported engagement with the learner’s practical and emotional support needs. These have been usefully described as the learner’s ‘emotional load’, which they bring to the learning environment (Simonot et al, 2008, p. 4).
More recently (2020), research into ‘alternative’ approaches to literacy teaching provision has drawn on the Psychologically Informed Environment (PIE) model. This framework similarly describes participation in a ‘secure and consistent context, with an emphasis on good quality relationships’
(Phipps et al, 2017, cited in Goodacre and Sumner, 2020, p. 13), in order to support students dealing with ‘learning trauma’ (Goodacre and Sumner, 2020, p. 12) and ‘learning anxiety’ (Goodacre and Sumner, 2020, p. 7). To apply this additionally to where I work: people experiencing detention can feel frightened, angry and stuck. (It’s always sobering to imagine yourself in the same position.) This is on top of the learning trauma/anxiety that may be triggered for students. It’s our job as teachers to find a compassionate and safe way to take account of these dynamics—a process that can sometimes feel a bit like trial and error.
As I was going into the QTLS ‘journey’, I wondered whether the place where I work might somehow not fit the template. I worried that the unpredictability of the setting and limitations around available teaching/learning hours might demand a flexibility beyond the parameters of the Professional Formation model (as I had constructed it in my head); its ceiling in terms of reasonable adjustments; or that I might run the risk of not generating enough evidence.
Despite the impact of Covid on our setting as a hospital, I found that the process frequently became a space in which to reflect on the relationship between my environment and my teaching, and the resulting experiences of my learners. Alan Corbett has written about the impact of trauma on healthcare settings (Corbett, 2014) and I became increasingly aware of this specifically in the context of the potential conscious and unconscious influences on my pedagogical approach.
Here are some of the headlines from my QTLS experience:
As a process, I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
QTLS is a Professional Status recognised in the Education sector, which is gained after successfully completing a six-month period of Professional Formation and maintained through membership to the Society for Education and Training.Read more