Prison education: what is it for?
28 Jun 2016
What is prison education for? This is the question the members of the Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA) have been asking since its formation in 2013. Education contractors used output-focused measures of success, such as number of hours teaching and numbers of accreditations. But the PLA felt these measures were missing something; that they led to a ‘tick box culture’ that met the targets, but missed the point.
In the blueprint for prison education Smart Rehabilitation PET called for a more ‘outcome-focused’ approach. But what ‘outcomes’ should we be talking about? Working with New Philanthropy Capital, the PLA has attempted to answer this fundamental question, asking teachers, and most importantly former prisoner learners: "What is prison education for?". Click here for the full report.
Prisoners are asked to undergo the most difficult of all human processes, the process of change, often in a deeply unsupportive environment.
One teacher who wrote in Inside Time said:
“Prisoners are asked to undergo the most difficult of all human processes, the process of change, often in a deeply unsupportive environment. Prisoners are made to ask themselves the great existential questions: 'Who am I?' 'Where am I going?' 'What do I need to change?' 'What’s the point of it all?' This is not to devalue literacy or numeracy but to elevate self-discovery as the overarching goal in education. In all education ideally, but certainly within jails.”
At last year’s PLA conference we asked over 100 teachers what they thought the benefits of prison education were and assembled them into a wordle. The most popular responses were: confidence, motivation, self-realisation, creativity, communication, engagement, understanding, identity, team-work and pride.
To understand what former prisoner learners thought, we encouraged them to reflect on their experiences of prison education and the benefits it gave them by using an approach called ‘collage as enquiry’. By making collages and then being interviewed about why they had chosen certain images and words, we were able to explore what prison education had really meant to them. We used this data, along with some of the literature around prison education and desistance theory, to formulate a ‘theory of change’ for prison education.
It is important say from the outset that it is a theory rather than a scientific study and the document is meant to stimulate debate and conversation about the purpose and value of prison education, how we can more strategically evaluate the benefits and how we can improve provision. We have devised a short survey to get readers' feedback. I do hope you will join in the conversation by completing the survey.
Summary of PLA’s Theory of Change – the five strands
Learners showed us that being involved in education improved their health and wellbeing, behaviour and ability to cope with prison and after release. One learner described how “being on the wing and doing nothing, you feel kind of depressed” and another described feeling that by doing education “even though I was stuck in prison, it was like my mind was free”.
- Human capital
Part of human capital is education’s role in giving people motivation to change. One learner described how education gave him the opportunity for self-reflection: “How did I get here? You’ve always got to ask yourself that question – it’s a big question”. Many of the collages refer to education giving them a chance for a new start: "Taking the first step can be scary, but education made me think – I can do this."
As well as the motivation, education also gives the tools and the resilience with which to move forward, despite all the barriers they may face. For example one learner reflected that “I wish I’d known about doing that when I was younger. Breaking things down into small realistic tasks”. Others described how education helped change their self-perception: “Prison reinforces the offender identity, education […] gave me the chance to form a new identity of student."
I started to look at people differently and became good friends with different people. It altered me in a massive way.
- Social capital.
This encompassed both improving people’s ability to relate to others (‘belonging and community’) and empowering them to actively participate in and positively contribute to society and their families (‘active engagement’). The word kindness came up often “Other's kindness helped me gain empathy” said one learner. Another explained that “I’d never had praise before, at school like. It felt good. That spurred me to study more." Education also provided opportunities for practising team work and collaboration. One described himself as a racist until he did a course in globalisation “I thought the English were superior, it was my ignorance. I started to look at people differently and became good friends with different people. It altered me in a massive way." A father said of education: “The biggest effects were on my children. I’m a role model now and I can help with homework."
- Knowledge, skills and employability
The more recognised role that education plays in helping people develop the skills thy need to improve their lives and move towards employment or self-employment. As one learner said “I grew up in a household where everyone was unemployed. If my children grow up in a positive household this will have a massive influence." Another, who is now working as a personal trainer after doing a fitness course in prison said “Education made me think – I can do this. I enjoy it, but it also pays the bills.”
The final theme is not related to the positive impact on individuals, but the prison establishment itself. Learners described the negative prison culture including the violence and bullying, which left them feeling "traumatised" and "isolated". However, they said education could be a "ray of light" in the darkness. The positive effect of education and peer support could push out the darker negative prison culture. “By celebrating success, you let people see. It has a ripple effect of inspiring others,” said one learner.
A new vision for prison education
The PLA hope Governors and education providers use these ideas to formulate a holistic vision, strategy and delivery model for education across the whole of their prison to make the most of its wide ranging benefits for individual prisoners, as well as creating a culture of learning in their establishments.
Join the conversation!
What do you think of the Theory of Change? Do they reflect what you see as the benefits? What evidence is there showing these benefits? What more could be done to improve the impact of learning for each of the five themes? How could you use the Theory of Change in your work? Let us know what you think but completing this short survey here and read the full report here.