PET's Academic Symposium

2 Oct 2014

On the 16th September, Prisoners' Education Trust held its inaugural academic symposium at the University of Oxford Centre for Criminology.

PET staff Morwenna Bennallick and Clare Taylor who organised the event, report back:

"The day was an excellent opportunity for academics working in prison education to share their findings, explore the issues in researching in the area and discuss the next steps for the field. With policy makers present, it also allowed for discussion on how to make research have a bigger impact on policy. PET hosted a series of workshops giving a platform to ongoing research impacting on the understanding of education in prison, examining the topics of:

  • The role of the ‘Insider’ in prison research?
  • How can we better join up research and policy?
  • Is prison education for educationalists or criminologists?

The ‘Insider’ in prison research

This section heard from ex-prisoner academics alongside other academics. Helen Nicholls shared some of the issues around being a female researcher conducting field work in a male prison for her PhD and the importance of establishing and building a rapport with prisoners through employing intellectual humility, connection and a common language. A critical race perspective was given by Dr Martin Glynn and Convict Criminologist Dr Andreas Aresti called for more Participatory Action Research to get the prison learner voice heard.

The session ended with Michael Irwin exploring his experience as a recent prison leaver pursuing higher education, paying tribute to those who supported him, saying: "Without teachers I would not still be here."

How can we better join up research and policy?

This session welcomed staff from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Ministry of Justice alongside established academics. Dr Kevin Warner spoke of the international situation of prison education research and argued that education in prison should seek to develop the whole person with research looking at the wider impact than reducing reoffending. He argued for the importance of recognising affective achievements in addition to cognitive achievements despite the difficulties in measuring. He argued for the need to ‘make the important measurable rather than the measurable important’. He also questioned the extent to which policy makers should have a hold over research, highlighting the importance of making sure there is a plurality of funding to accommodate a wide range of research.

"One of the best ways we can use research is to hear from the insiders, people in prison and really listen" says Dr Warner.

Richard Ward discussed the policy-makers' perspective whilst Dr Rosie Meek argued that academics have a responsibility to produce research which stands up to government departments such as the Ministry of Justice but which is also accessible to the public and not just about producing high level reports. She also spoke of the importance of making links between the academic community and the VCS, highlighting in particular her joint work with PET on the Fit for Release report which was still generating interest two years later.

Is prison education for educationalists or criminologists?

This broadened the debate with Jason Warr putting forward a very persuasive argument calling for prison education to be much wider than just the remit of educationalists or criminologists and in need of input from politicians, economists, accountants and media professionals to name but a few. Jason’s argument was for more visibility of prison education by making it more of a mainstream issue.

"If we make prison education more of a mainstream issue we can move teachers from the margins. Everyone needs to be involved in prison education" he says.

Anne Pike from the Open University gave a round up of all the speakers from the day, observing that the concept of establishing a common language had been a theme throughout the day. From the need to highlight the prisoner learner voice to the lack of a common language between academic disciplines, policy-makers and even within policy teams, the day emphasised that in order to be heard, we need to start finding routes for effective communication.

Find out more about PET's research and others in our resource library.