Unlocking Graduates' Potential

Natasha Porter discusses a leadership development programme which grows society’s future leaders and tackles the damage and cost of prisoner reoffending.

von Olwen Smith, September 26, 2017
Natasha Porter Unlocked Graduates

Natasha Porter is founder and CEO of Unlocked Graduates, a unique two-year leadership development programme aimed at training graduates to become inspirational and supportive leaders through work as prison officers. She has extensive experience in education, as founding teacher of  King Solomon Academy, at think tank Policy Exchange, and also the Department for Education. Natasha is also a founding governor of One Degree Academy.

Can you tell us a little about the Unlocked Graduate Programme?

Unlocked Graduates  is a two-year leadership graduate scheme specifically aimed at encouraging the brightest and the best graduates to become prison officers - similar to what the Teach First programme offers  graduates interested in becoming teachers. Our participants will be asked to focus on breaking cycles of re-offending and giving second chances to those who lacked opportunities earlier in life as part of a master’s degree all while taking on the full duties of a frontline prison officer.  This report from the BBC who visited some of our participants during their training at HMP Coldingley gives a great summary.

What motivated you to start the programme?

The programme grew out of a recommendation in the Coates Review of prison education. Prison has a really poor record of reducing re-offending – nearly half of adults are reconvicted within one year of release, and for those serving sentences of less than 12 months this increases to 60 per cent. I started Unlocked Graduates in the belief that reoffending is a problem which can be solved. We want to bring in a generation of frontline prison officers who believe that too and have the tools to change lives.  They will not only make a huge difference in the lives of prisoners but kick-start an incredible career for themselves!

My ambition is to redefine what people believe is possible for prisoners. Unlocked is built on the belief that people can change and other people are the best method to help them do so. Importantly, this is an issue of social justice: prisoners are not a cross section of society, they are too often those who have lacked opportunity throughout their lives. We want to make prisons a place which fixes that rather than making it worse.

How do you measure the impact of Unlocked?

We are in the business of changing lives and that is where our impact will be seen. Our participants are on the frontline so teaching someone to read; helping someone rebuild relationships with their children; or even literally saving someone's life by talking them out of a suicide attempt will be just some of the ways they transform prisoners’ lives.

We are already seeing these things happening after our participants have been on the wings for just a month.  Long-term, we want to see rates of reoffending decreasing among prisoners who have worked with Unlocked Graduates and see ideas our participants have developed being adopted across the prison system. We also want to have a wider societal impact with Unlocked ‘Alumni’. Whether they continue working in prisons, move into corporate jobs or start their own organisations, they will bring with them an understanding of the importance of rehabilitation and employing ex-prisoners.

What are the main attributes you look for in applicants?

We don’t expect applicants to have any specific knowledge or experience of the prison service. Instead, we look at the potential to make an impact on prisoners’ lives. To assess this we look for a number of attributes including a sense of possibility, leadership potential; the ability to make decisions in high pressure situations; the ability to build relationships with people from all walks of life; resilience in the face of challenge; self-awareness and motivation for our vision to rehabilitate prisoners. We also need all applicants to have the right to work in the UK and, in terms of academic achievements, we ask for a minimum of a 2:1 degree.

Where do you hope to see the programme in 5 years?

I want us to be changing more and more people's lives, including children who are in prison. We believe that people can change, even those that the rest of society has given up on, and  we want prisons to become places which help people turn around their behaviour. This in turn means fewer victims of crime and a safer place for us all to live.

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