Unlocking my potential – Nathan on his work in prisons with the Unlocked programme

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Nathan discusses his experience with Unlocked, a two-year leadership programme supporting the rehabilitation of others. He talks about what he learned, how it set him up for his current role in education, and workplace diversity.

Pic of NathanNathan is 25 and currently works as a strategy advisor for the Department for Education. Prior to this, he completed the Unlocked Graduates programme where he worked to support and rehabilitate some of the most vulnerable and challenging young people across England and Wales. He is passionate about tackling socio-economic and educational inequalities, with a particular focus on exploring how we can better support the aspirations of young people at risk of entering, or already within, the criminal justice system.

What did you learn during the Unlocked programme and how did Unlocked prepare you for your current role?

I learnt so much – it’s hard to put it into words! Unlocked really prepared me in so many ways. I’d say the first is the realisation that growth comes from stepping outside your comfort zone…and there’s no environment that exposes you to situations you never thought you’d be in like a prison. At times, it was extremely challenging but with the support you get from Unlocked and your colleagues you find yourself dealing with these situations, building your resilience, and keeping calm under pressure.

understanding the impact of government strategy and policy in practice has allowed me to approach my work from a different angle.

Then there’s the soft skills which I picked up like time management, organisation, communication that were crucial to everyday problem-solving. In prison, you work with a range of young people from diverse backgrounds and must be able to adapt to their individual needs. Furthermore, it taught me that building effective relationships with people was integral to supporting rehabilitation and showed me how important demonstrating care, acting consistently, and sticking to your word were to this.

On a more practical level, my two-week work placement on the Unlocked programme, in the HMPPS head office (Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service) gave me an invaluable introduction to the Civil Service. Not only was I given the opportunity to contribute toward high-profile projects, but the experience also showed me how transferable the skills and insights I gained working in prison were to the wider world – solidifying my desire to work in the civil service. I think that understanding the impact of government strategy and policy in practice has allowed me to approach my work from a different angle.

Unlocked really developed me personally and professionally

Also, I completed a group a policy paper which looked at improving the experience of remand prisoners across our system. This was great experience which gave me insight into how to scope out an issue and make meaningful recommendations – something that’s really impacted my work now.

And then there’s my motivation. Most boys and young people I met in prison wanted to go down the vocational and technical education route, but provision in the establishment was limited. Due to this, I decided to write my Masters dissertation on the potential for vocational education to support young offenders’ rehabilitation and now find myself working in a similar area in my current role. So, when I’m working now, I try to think of these young people to help build a system that works for people in their situation.

Overall, Unlocked really developed me personally and professionally. It really shaped how I see the world and our society by giving you a unique perspective on things and given me skills that have helped me to thrive in my current work. Without a doubt, it’s the most transformative and enriching experience I’ve had in my life, and I owe so much to it.

What advice would you give now to your younger self?

I would say to just get out there and try things! Growing up, I had a lot of interests and things that I really cared about but I didn’t pursue them because I was worried- as a lot of teenagers are- with image and how it looked to others. Moreover, I let a fear of failure stop me. In the last few years, I’ve really tried to be bolder…which ultimately culminated in me joining Unlocked. So again, my advice would be to follow what you want rather than what you think your parents want or what you think your friends expect. Just take a calculated risk and do it!

What signs do you look for to know an organisation’s approach to diversity and/or workplace culture is right for you?

One of the things that stood out for me with Unlocked was that they referenced the disproportionate representation of ethnic minority prisoners within our system. This showed me from the beginning that they recognised this as an issue, and it really aligned with one of my big motivators for joining the scheme. Beyond this though, I think the most important factor is transparency. During my time on Unlocked’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Group, the organisation committed to publishing their diversity statistics on their website to be fully honest and open about areas where they were doing well and where improvements were needed. And they didn’t do this because of a PR crisis, they did this and a host of other actions because they genuinely want to do better. That said, my advice to anyone applying to a role in a new company and wondering what the culture is like would be to go out there and find someone who currently works there. Ask them about their experience as this will give you an account of things that you can’t find on the website.

You can find out more about the Unlocked graduate programme and apply on their website.

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