Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice



COMMENDEE 2018-19: Mush is a Programme Tutor at HMP & YOI Polmont. She receives a Commendation for the passion and dedication she brings to her work, and for her success in encouraging and nurturing a love of learning among some of the system’s most complex and challenging young people.

As Initial Nominator and Polmont Youth Worker, Laura Dougal, describes, Mush’s nomination was instigated on behalf of a group of young people. Laura explains that these young people ‘discussed at length the compassion, support and commitment Mush has given them,’ adding that ‘Mush has worked tirelessly to support those who experience complex learning difficulties to overcome barriers to learn, and to inspire young people to enjoy learning, some for the very first time. Mush offers young people an opportunity to explore a range of learning topics, from the civil war to tattoo design and anything else that sparks a young person’s motivation to learn.’

Laura explains that she thinks Mush’s alternative teaching styles are where ‘her real talent and strengths lie’. She gives several examples, including model-building powered by elastic bands, a video review group, and speaking English as a second language, and adds that Mush’s talents ‘are endless, as is her likeability, knowledge, skills and confidence. The young people in Polmont hold Mush in the highest regard and can often be found repeating Mush’s can do attitude.’

Laura McShane is an Education Team leader and says Mush ‘shows a great deal of empathy and compassion for her learners. Her knowledge of and support for young people with complex learning difficulties and disabilities issues is truly inspirational.’

Among the young people adding their voice, one said of Mush that she is ‘very generous with her time’ while another called her, simply, ‘a legend.’

A fellow teacher, Neil McGaw, says that her ‘one to one and small group work in the residential halls can’t be underestimated. The feedback you hear from the learners is a credit to the hard work, dedication and professionalism of Mush.’

Polmont Unit Manager Jim Smith adds that, ‘Mush is held in the highest regard amongst all who live and work here, and in 23 years in the Scottish Prison Service I have rarely met anyone so dedicated to improving the life chances of those in our care through her conscientiousness, reliability, and patience.’

The Local Butler Trust Champion and HR Business Partner, Melanie Bowie, says:

‘For many young people held in Polmont she has been instrumental in their re-engagement with learning using her enthusiasm and drive. It is evident to all that she is simply motivated by the simple wish for our young people to improve their life chances. Many young people across Polmont have credited Mush with giving them hope for the future when originally they felt they did not have one.’

Melanie goes on to praise ‘an outstanding effort and commitment from her over a significant period of time to encourage young people to view themselves differently in a more positive light, which in turn supports the aims of reducing offending behaviour, making for safer communities and increasing the potential for them to find employment.’ She adds that, ‘This way of working is widely recognised in a positive manner throughout the establishment by staff, young people, visitors, and managers alike.’ Melanie also says that ‘The feedback you hear from the learners is credit to her hard work, dedication and professionalism… Any professional working in prison education can learn something from Mush, and she reminds educationalists every day of why they chose to work in this sector. We wouldn’t have her any other way!’

Millar Cowan, a colleague and Prison Officer, says ‘the work she puts in above and beyond with the boys is unequalled’, while Polmont’s Deputy Governor, Natalie Beal, describes how Mush ‘makes a hugely significant impact on the lives of some of the most vulnerable and challenging young people in our care…. Mush’s never-ending energy, drive and resourcefulness are key to her levels of success.’

In conclusion, Mush describes some of her attitude and the methods she uses to reach into these young lives and kindle the spark that can fire a life of learning:

‘I don’t give in with students, no matter how reluctant or difficult they are. Within reason whatever their interests are I will use that as a starting point with them. If they tell me they are rubbish at maths and/or English I say, “let’s get it sorted”. I enjoy helping the students to progress and be aware of that progress; this may be on an academic level or on a social level. For some, not ending up in a fight is progress.

I give out word searches, colouring sheets and other additional activities to anyone who wants them. I also run a DVD club for the young people. I use this as a way to get to know the young person as well as encourage them to engage with education. They all write me a review sheet of the film.’

Although Mush writes that ‘underpinning all the lessons are social skills and improving confidence levels as well as having a good laugh’, something else is evident from the enthusiasm in the nomination papers: underlying her work is an evident desire to bring to life the lifelong value of learning. We may ourselves have been fortunate enough to have met such a teacher: clearly the young offenders in Polmont are lucky enough to have one, too.

* Prisoners’ names have been anonymised.

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