HMP Bronzefield

Teaching English in a women's prison

Published on : 9/11/20
  • Upskilling women is at the heart of HMP Bronzefield’s rehabilitative work and the education centre and its tutors have a key role to play. Find out why Sofia believes education is really at the heart of breaking the cycle and reducing reoffending.

    Sofia Oumouassan started her career with HMP & YOI Bronzefield in October 2017 when she joined on a temporary assignment. Two and a half years later, Sofia is a permanent Sodexo employee teaching English at secondary school level to many of the prison’s 500+ residents. 

    Sofia stood on a wing in HMP Bronzefield

    Pictured: Sofia Oumoussan at HMP Bronzefield

    Sofia Oumouassan has had a varied career but it’s a Sodexo-run prison in Ashford, Surrey where she’s become settled: “I wanted to work in London and while I was on a placement for my PGCE, a mentor told me about the experience of working in a prison. I wanted something different to the usual teaching post and so I thought I’d apply and see what happened.” 

    Sofia initially started her work at Bronzefield via an agency but in March 2018, she transferred into the Sodexo team. Sofia now teaches functional skills, English at Entry 3 level (equivalent to year 9 lessons in mainstream education) and at Level 1 (equivalent to a GCSE). She also supports with ESOL classes for speaking and listening exams. 

    Working in a prison is different to other schools. Sofia points out that the size of classes is often smaller. In a mainstream classroom with 30 people you might not get the opportunity to build a relationship with each student. In my classes, I teach maybe 10 or 12 students at a time and that really helps to create a rapport with each woman which is so fundamental to their learning and success.

    A typical day usually starts at 8:00am when Sofia arrives at the prison and makes her way to the education centre. Here she checks a few emails before classes begin at 08:50am. She teaches for three hours before the women are returned to their cells and Sofia breaks for lunch. Classes resume at 14:00pm and run until 16:50pm. With slightly longer lessons than many mainstream schools, Sofia is able to focus on individual resident’s needs ensuring that they all achieve as much as possible during her classes. This is important to Sofia because many of her students are only with her for a short time: “Because we hold women on remand as well as those who’ve been sentenced, some residents may only be here for a few days or weeks. We have to work hard to make sure they can benefit from the classes knowing that they might not have time to actually obtain their qualifications with us. It’s up to me to give them a taste of their potential and encourage them to keep at their lessons when they’re released or transfer.” 

    Day to day Sofia says the environment in a prison classroom is very similar to any other and that behaviour is, generally, very good. “As with any class, there are some really bright students and some people who are less capable and need more support and encouragement. But my students often have complex issues and are dealing with tough times. I have to know the best way to support each one and to give them the best opportunities.” 

    Encouraging people who don’t want to learn is a huge part of the role for a prison tutor, and it’s obvious talking to Sofia that these are her biggest success stories: “Lots of women come into classes saying they don’t want to be there. I was covering a maths class recently and a new lady arrived who was very negative about education. She kept swearing about being in a maths lesson. Getting her to be responsive – and positive! – was a challenge but I kept at it. By the end of the second lesson, I had her up at the board demonstrating problem-solving to other residents. You could see she was proud of her learning and I really felt I’d not only helped with her maths skills but given her self-esteem a boost that day.” 

    Upskilling women is at the heart of HMP Bronzefield’s rehabilitative work and the education centre and its tutors have a key role to play. They provide the basic qualifications needed for most jobs – including functional English – and this in turn can reduce reoffending as Sofia explains: The three things that will most reduce the chances of women reoffending are accommodation, strong family ties and a job. So by providing the qualifications needed to secure a job, the education team plays a critical part in helping women prepare for release. Education is really at the heart of breaking the cycle and reducing reoffending. 

    Education is really at the heart of breaking the cycle and reducing reoffending.

    “Actually, I’ve been surprised by how much women engage in my classes. They are really keen to learn and just want and need the chance. It sounds clichéd but treating people with dignity and being open-minded can really make this the most rewarding teaching role out there. I have some very talented women in my class and they have a lot to offer. They just don’t know they have a lot to offer: it’s my job to show them.”  

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