“Education can be an effective link to keeping families together”

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Tom Schuller | 10 February 2020

Books at HMP Pentonville

In this blog post we hear from Professor Tom Schuller as he reflects on what he has learned so far during his time as chair of the Prisoner Learning Alliance. He talks about the need to engage with further education colleges, lifelong learning in an ageing population, and public education on prison issues.

I realised recently that I’m already half way through my second year as chair of the Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA).  I’m still in apprenticeship mode, but here are three personal reflections from my experience to date.

The first is the urgent need for a FEPIL to match PET’s Prison University Partnerships work.  In other words, the prison-university partnership network is doing wonderful work – but we need to strengthen equivalent links between further education colleges and education in prions.  Colleges are in many respects the best placed providers for prisoners, especially as they leave prison.  Colleges are used to catering for a very diverse student population; they cover a very broad range of learning, from basic skills upwards; and they are more often part of the local community.

I hope that in the next year we can build up some good initiatives linking further education with the prison sector

All these factors make colleges generally the most likely candidates for many people with prison experience.  But at present it seems that few colleges are actively engaged in building relations with prisons.  This is partly because of funding restrictions and regulations which make it hard for them to make the necessary links.  I’d love to hear about colleges that are so engaged.  The scope for innovation, even initially small-scale, is there, and I hope that in the next year we can build up some good initiatives linking further education with the prison sector, in addition to the other PLA priorities such as digital access.

Read more about PLA’s work on digital technology here

The impending launch of a major report on leadership in prison education, written by Angela Sanders and sponsored by the Further Education Trust for Leadership, will be an excellent opportunity to give this issue a wider airing.   Greater engagement with the college sector is a personal priority – but of course none of this is to downplay the university links so well promoted by PET….

It’s a stupid irony that in an ageing society learning opportunities are increasingly concentrated into the initial stages of people’s lives

Secondly, I’d like to see more attention paid to demographics. It’s a stupid irony that in an ageing society learning opportunities are increasingly concentrated into the initial stages of people’s lives.  Participation in adult education in the UK generally has dropped by something like 45% in the last 10 years – a really perverse and damaging trend that has too often gone completely unnoticed.  As with the population overall, the older age groups are growing fast as a proportion of the prison population.  We should be doing more to assess what the learning needs of this group are, and to meet their diverse learning needs.

We need to strengthen ways in which people can learn how to stay in touch with their children but also their grandchildren, step(grand)children and other wider family networks.

But this goes beyond older prisoners as individuals.  They are often members of multi-generational families, and education can be an effective link to keeping families together.   We know how often going to prison leads to family break-up.  I’ve long admired the work of Safe Ground and its Family Man programme, enabling fathers to maintain communication with their children.  We need to strengthen ways in which people can learn how to stay in touch with their children but also their grandchildren, step(grand)children and other wider family networks.

When I was writing a thematic paper on Crime and Lifelong Learning for NIACE’s Inquiry into the Future of Lifelong Learning (IFLL), what I found most shocking was the correlation between boys who have a father in prison going on to have some experience of prison themselves. We need to break that link and replace it with something much more positive.  Learning has a big part to play in that.

The public debate, such as it is, is driven by misconceptions and deliberate or accidental misrepresentation of the nature of prison life

My third reflection is not about prisoner learning but the education of the public on prison issues.  The public debate, such as it is, is driven by misconceptions and deliberate or accidental misrepresentation of the nature of prison life.  Most people – happily, in one sense – have no experience of prison; they have never been inside one or even met a prisoner or (as far as they are aware) an ex-prisoner.   This can lead to certain stereotypes and misconceptions.  There is a real task for better public education here, ideally involving some direct contact with the prison service.  It’s a long-term challenge, but an important one.

In the IFLL paper I put it this way:

“Learning does not inoculate against perversely punitive or absurdly permissive stances. It may not generate any greater degree of consensus on what is a very contentious set of issues, but it should help more civilised and informed debate, public and private, about what is right and wrong in relation to crime.”

This means constantly bringing into the debate the mounting evidence on the positive effects of prison learning in enabling prisoners to develop personally and to make a social contribution. These arguments are an important part of the debate on what works for prisoners and for our wider society.

This is part of the Prison University partnerships blog series, which shines a spotlight each month on an example of prisons and universities working in partnership to deliver education. If you would like to respond to the points and issues raised in this blog, or to contribute to the blog yourself, please contact Helena.

 

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