Student council model could help prisoners take up education, says charity

4 Jul 2013

PET says the model of a student council in prisons could encourage prisoners to take up education voluntarily, rather than through force or to obtain ‘good behaviour’ privileges.

A launch event of PET’s new toolkit on prisoner learner voice, held on Tuesday 9th July 2013 in London, will feature prisons which have set up systems to make learning more relevant for prisoners, establish councils and appointed learner ‘reps’ or peer mentors to encourage others to sign up to courses.

Staff from prisons across England and Wales will hear from speakers including the Minister for Prisons and Rehabilitation, Rt. Hon. Jeremy Wright MP and the Governor of HMYOI Cookham Wood Emily Thomas. She said:

"Re-offending carries a huge cost for society. That is why it is so important to ensure that opportunities for learning in prison are effective in enabling prisoners to develop and transform their lives…listening to prisoner learners is a vital way to do this."

HMYOI Cookham Wood, HMP Elmley and HMP Holloway are amongst those highlighted in Involve, Improve, Inspire: A prisoner learner voice toolkit, to promote their successful initiatives implementing the student council model, starting newsletters and holding Question Time-style events. Feedback from the prisons which have set up these processes have found that there is an increased interest in learning as prisoners listen to their peers when they promote education on the wings and that security is improved because there is a formal route for prisoners to raise complaints and issues or come up with solutions to problems. They also allow staff to build more positive relationships with prisoners.

PET’s Head of Policy, Nina Champion, said:

"In schools or colleges a student council is something you would expect to see so why not in a prison learning environment? There are so many benefits for both prison staff and learners who adopt some of the good practices outlined in this toolkit. In this guide we show how prisoners have developed transferable skills in diplomacy, communication and helping others which will help them settle back into communities and improve their job prospects. By taking on an important role as a learner representative or a student council member they can gain a positive sense of identity, making them less likely to reoffend when they are released."

A prisoner learner said: "I am proud to be on the Student Council and to have been voted as Chair. I can promote education on the wings, my workplace, everywhere. I know people watch me in my T-shirt. I know I’m a role model for others, so this has helped me think about how I behave."

The interactive guide also contains case studies, activities and films to help staff enable prisoners to have a say in decisions about education provision. One of the films was produced by young people at HMYOI Cookham Wood with the help of Kidulthood and Adulthood star Femi Oyeniran who holds a film club there.

The actor and director said:

"The aim of the film is to share how the youth council acts as a medium for the vocalisation of the young peoples' concerns about the extent of the education that they are provided. Because of the youth council some young people are now able to access distance learning courses which give them more scope to turn away from crime once out of prison."

Editor’s Notes

For interview requests, photos or further information please contact Susannah Henty, Media Manager, Susannah@prisonerseducation.org.uk; 020 8648 7760 www.prisonerseducation.org.uk

About PET

Since 1989, Prisoners' Education Trust (PET) has supported prisoners to engage in rehabilitation through learning. The charity does this by providing advice and funding for approximately 2,000 people per year for distance learning courses in subjects and levels not generally available in prisons. PET also carries out research, informed by prisoner learners, to improve prison education policies.

In 2012 PET launched the Prisoner Learning Alliance to work together with 18 other expert organisations to champion learning for people in prison.