Swaleside's Open Academy

Nina Champion, PET's Head of Policy, reports back from the launch event of HMP Swaleside's Open Academy, a wing dedicated to learning:

‘You can’t change anyone - you can only create an environment that makes change possible’, Malcolm Whitelaw

"Walking around A wing it is easy to forget you are in a prison and instead it feels as if you might be in a college or university. Book shelves are lined with reference materials and journals. There is a computer room and quiet study spaces and even an inspirational wall of achievement. This is the launch of the ‘Open Academy’ learning wing at HMP Swaleside. A wing dedicated to providing a learning environment and learning community for both prisoners and staff.

Dedicated and passionate Head of Learning and Skills, Malcolm Whitelaw, had a chance conversation where he found out the Open University were closing a library locally. When he asked where the resources were going he was told they would be recycled. Immediately Malcolm saw the opportunity for the prison to make use of them and arranged for five bus loads of resources to be delivered to the prison. This was the inspiration then to work together with the prison Governor, staff, prisoners and outside agencies to develop ‘The Open Academy’ on A-wing.  

The Governor, Sarah Coccia, explains that the average stay at Swaleside is six years. She said: ‘We want as many opportunities for prisoners to achieve as much as they can while they are here. Education tends to focus on basic skills but we know education is a fundamental factor in reducing re-offending.

"We wanted to provide extra opportunities for learners to punch higher and achieve higher level qualifications, as they have the time to do it. The learning environment is key. We wanted to develop a place that prisoners could study, meet other learners, gain skills in research and using a reference library.

"We want it to feel real so they feel comfortable in an academic environment when they are released. We expect prisoners to achieve the highest level qualification they can. If they have the potential to do more, then they should have the opportunity. We’ve still got work to do, but we are on a journey to develop a learning culture."

Whitelaw adds: "We don’t want just OU students on the wing, but anyone who is engaged in learning and wants to be part of a community of learners, and live, work and study in a learning environment. It doesn’t matter what level they are.

"We are trying to establish a college type environment within the prison and a learning community. Lots of people do want to change. We want to show people change is possible if you provide an environment where change is possible."

Whitelaw adds that partnership working was key to the launch of this initiative. The OU bought some computers and other resources. The Manchester College has given us some funds and Prisoners’ Education Trust funds learners to do distance learning courses and gives advice on course choices. The prisoners were also a key partner in designing and helping develop the idea for the ‘Open Academy’ and practically as mentors and even painting the walls with the logos of the project partners and making the beautifully crafted wooden plaque to celebrate the opening of the wing

The idea is that prison staff can also use the facilities. I spoke to one officer on the wing who was about to start an Open University course and will use the facilities. She explained that she hadn’t been able to study to a higher level previously as she had young children, but now they were a bit older she wanted to further her education. She was looking forward to being part of the learning community on A-wing.

One of the masterminds behind this initiative is a prisoner learner called Anton. In front of a packed room, including his family, he spoke about his journey and what education meant to him. He said:

"People develop and change by making a choice. If they make that choice and you are keen and willing to learn and engage in distance learning we want to support you in the Open Academy.

"I went to a school in East London where only 11% of students got 5 A-C passes at GCSE. It’s not an excuse. I had a choice but I made the wrong choice and fell easily into a life of crime. I wanted to live in the fast lane, girls, cars, money.  

"I am now 6 years into a twenty year sentence. I thought what an earth am I going to do when I get out? An officer said to me, you have twenty years to plan and prepare for that day. I decided to get myself fit and healthy and to educate myself to the highest level I can.

"Yes I might not get a job after I’ve been released. I can accept an employer telling me I’ve not got the job because of my criminal record. But I couldn’t accept an employer telling me I’m not qualified enough for the job when I’ve had opportunities to study in prison. How does education help us and others? I feel confident. I have self-worth and I’m more employable. I have pride and am responsible.

"With the Open Academy we want to develop a positive place where we can educate ourselves. We want to build a community of learners and spread it to other wings. We want to reach other prisons so prisoners apply to come here to live on the wing.

"As the Justice Secretary Michael Gove said recently ‘ I am attracted to the idea of earned release for those offenders who make a commitment to serious educational activity, who show by their changed attitude that they wish to contribute to society and who work hard to acquire proper qualifications which are externally validated and respected by employers.’ This wing will help us to help ourselves and then help others.

"We want to send a message that there is nothing wrong with getting clever. Yes you might be scared and nervous and think ‘there’s no point’, but it’s the only way to break the cycle."

After Anton’s emotional speech, Baroness Floella Benjamin gave an inspirational speech. She was clearly moved by the tour of the wing and meeting Anton and the other learners and mentors. She said:

"It is a joy to be here. I came because of Anton’s letter to me. I felt that I wanted to meet this person who is encouraging others to find themselves. You are going to make a difference to other people, Anton. Help them to believe in themselves and have high self-esteem. You need to make learning fun, joyful, stimulating. You need to reach out to others and change the world. As my mother used to tell me ‘Education is your passport to life’. Once you have education, no-one can take it away. Doors will open. You will start to be somebody. Confident. On a path.

"How did I get here? Drive, motivation and self belief. I listened to my mum. I had a ‘sign-post moment’ at age 14. For ten years since arriving in England I had been on the receiving end of racial bullying, I’d been called names and even spat on. I thought the only way to survive was to be brutal and I fought back. Then one day as I was fighting a boy, I had a moment where I thought to myself, ‘no Floella, you don’t need to do this. Fight with your brain rather than your fists’. I tell my story to show that you can use education to change.

"Today I can see the seeds of education growing, the essence of hope, pride and dignity. It is never too late to learn. Education has to be used to change the lives of others. Anton, you fell into the trap of commercialism and material goods. In the future you can make money, but in a decent way. You will be someone others can put their trust in. You can change their minds. You will feel powerful and strong.

"When you get the education bug, life is like Christmas every day, you feel energy, love. But it takes time and you have to have belief. You have to learn how to deal with your own mind. You are in charge. When your mind wants you to turn the TV on instead of study, you need to play mind games with yourself to have the power to say no and resist temptation. You are in control. Education will influence the way you act and conduct your life.

"I always talk about the four C’s:

Consideration of others, empathy and wanting to give and love unconditionally as this will open doors for you.

Contentment – not being envious of others.

Confidence – being able to look in the mirror and like the person who looks back at you, having high self-esteem.  

Courage - Today I have seen that you have had the courage to press the re-set button and have made a decision to change your life.

You are here for a reason, for a purpose – to change others lives. Walk tall and with pride. If you practice the four c’s you can move mountains.

I shall tell Michael Gove I came here today and tell him what wonderful things are happening here."

And then she burst into song .. ‘smile and the world smiles with you.’ Baroness Benjamin's speech was a fitting end to an inspiring day. If you would like to find out more about the prisons efforts to support learners watch our film 'Embedded Learning at HMP Swaleside'.