Commission education fit for prison type, says Leicester Governor

28 Sep 2017

Commission education fit for prison type, says Leicester Governor


Speakers on the panel:

Richard Ward, Ministry of Justice

Sally Garratt, Director of Operations at Novus

Patrick, former prison learner and student council chair

Ross Little, Senior Lecturer, De Montfort University

Phil Novis, Governor, HMP Leicester


As a governors are gaining autonomy over their education budgets, it is important to consider the unique environment and challenges of your environment, says Phil Novis, governor of HMP Leicester.

“The average stay at our prison is about six weeks, and what you can do in that time is a challenge. For my colleagues at [category B Leicestershire prison] Gartree, where the average time of stay is six years, their challenge is different - how do you keep people motivated for that time? What kind of arrangements do you need to make for when men move on?”

Speaking at the PLA Conference on 14 September, Novis also challenged the wisdom of using educational assessments so soon after someone walks through the prison gates. He said it was the “timing” of the initial educational assessment, rather than the assessment itself, that he found problematic.

He said:

“We need to assess, I understand that. But in a local prison when men are fresh off the street, they don’t even know the day of the week. Many have been disadvantaged at school; they’ve been excluded. So the assessment only confirms what they already know or believe - usually ‘I’m not very bright’ - which is not a reality.

“We have to try and keep folk in education, and this involves not starting them off by giving them fear of exams or failing.”

For a prisoner learner, the most significant achievement may not be formal qualification, said Novis.

“Sometimes for someone to enter the threshold into education, just this can be better than getting a Level 1 qualification,” he said.

Leicester has strived to embed a lot of its education, said Novis. “Give me a theme for a month that the prison can focus on, and we can use it outside of the classroom setting. We can include Maths, geography, history, English. This gives folks an opportunity to do education in a ‘safe’ environment.

“Sports is a major driver, music is a major driver – a lot of education at my prison will be embedded, my gosh, my guys will be learning something.”

Novis touched on collaboration with De Montfort University (DMU) as an example of innovative learning. Leicester and DMU have started what Novis called a Learning Together ‘Lite’ prison/university partnership. This week-long course, said Novis, “brings people together”, and “opens up people to the idea that learning is not bad”.

Novis was followed onstage by his collaborator on the project – Ross Little, Senior Lecturer at DMU, who, appropriately, was discussing collaboration.

DMU has run Learning Together courses with both HMP Leicester and Gartree, said Little. The duration length of the Leicester course was tailored to fit in with the length of stay of the average prisoner.

This sort of collaboration gave organisations the chance to learn from each other. “Getting out of your bubble reduces our social and work isolation,” he said. But there were also challenges – an important one being capacity (or lack of), particularly in prisons.

Any joint endeavor also raises issues over distribution of workload and responsibilities.

“You want to feel your efforts are being matched by other people; that people have an equal commitment, but that’s difficult to gauge,” he said. “It’s complicated because to do something new you have to put up a lot upfront - there’s a degree of risk. People ask themselves ‘what’s in it for me, who pays my wages, and who gets the credit?’”

This can happen especially in environments like prisons, where a ‘masculine’ culture can heighten people’s tendency to seek ownership over a project and be protective over one’s own ideas.

Some key elements to effective collaboration, said Little, were to be honest, realistic about what is achievable; to listen and learn from each other, and to recognise the strengths of others.

Sally Garratt, Director of Operations at Novus, and Patrick, a former prison learner, presented their collaborative research into the value of learner voice.

Garrett said Novus, which is the largest prison education provider in England and Wales, aims to incorporate prisoners’ views into its service provision, and into its strategic thinking as an organisation.

Novus has been working with Prisoners’ Education Trust on a project that aims to establish what learner voice means and how best to approach it. The research has involved speaking to staff, learners and others about what is currently being done to include the learner’s perspective, and how this could be improved.

Garrett said: “We had focus groups, surveys, good practice, but it wasn’t consistent around the 64 estates,” she said.

She said the best examples of learner voice were ones that developed in a “co-productive” way between staff and prisoners; which were clear about purpose and impact, and which did not create a “demand/response culture”, but rather was based on working in collaboration.

“For us, learner voice is really about listening, really truly listening to people and working out how can we move what they’re saying forward,” she said.

With the changing nature of the prison population and governors about to gain autonomy, there was “no better time” to start thinking about using the experiences of prisoners to shape learning, she said.

Patrick, who sits on the steering group with Novus and PET echoed this. Patrick chaired the student council at HMP Wymott, an example of Learner Voice that was singled out in the Ofsted best practice report.

“For me, even though I had done a lot studying, [being on the student council] was the first time I could really have an input,” he said.

Patrick, who served a life sentence, said: “Really I had been a prisoner for so long that I had lost my individuality - I really didn’t know where I would fit into society when I got out.”

Chairing the student council changed this, he said. “I could go back to the lads and say – ‘You could be listened to,’ and they were really excited. You couldn’t get any better than that.”

Slides are available here: Ross Little.ppt Sally Garrat, Patrick.pptx

Find further information about the Conference agenda and participants, what was said in workshops and other panels here.