"I'm blown away by our learners' inner strength": an interview with PET's new and outgoing chairs

6 Dec 2018

PET chairs

New PET Chair Elisabeth Davies (l) and outgoing Chair Alexandra Marks (r)

Elisabeth Davies has been named as the new Chair of Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET), taking over the position from Alexandra Marks CBE. In this interview, the new and outgoing Chairs discuss the successes of the last six years and what the future holds for the charity. 

Elisabeth, what drew you to this role?

Elisabeth: Prisons felt like unfinished business for me. I chaired the Citizens Advice Bureau in Wandsworth and the prison is a key part of the community there. We took our outreach work very seriously and worked on financial literacy in the prison, which of course is where PET first started back in 1989.

The more I read about PET, the more interested I became. It really appealed to me that the organisation has a learner-centred focus. It’s ever so important that you use the insight and evidence from people using your services to go back and improve those services and influence those who have a say in commissioning. I was drawn to that focus on the importance of the lived experience.

Alexandra, looking back to when you started as Chair, what has changed at PET? And what are the most important areas for PET to focus on?

Alexandra: Essentially, PET is a much bigger, more professional set-up now, which is all credit to the current staff team. I think the biggest single change has been the development of its policy work. By exploiting its knowledge and experience on the frontline, the organisation has had the courage and ambition to say, “We know more about prison education than anybody else.” And this has genuinely resonated with policy makers and the Ministry of Justice.

"Education has changed his perspective on everything."

Of the people supported by PET, whose stories have stuck with you the most?

Alexandra: This is the most difficult question to answer - there have been so many!

Frank Harris is an incredibly smiley and engaging man who had been in and out of prison for more than 30 years before he discovered education through the encouragement of a prison teacher. The most amazing thing happened to him at a recent Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA) conference: he met that prison teacher who changed his life. It was a lump in the throat moment.

Two things he said were striking: he feels like now he can give, whereas before he only took. He can be a better dad, husband and grandad. Secondly, education has broadened his horizons. For all those years in and out of prison, the only thing he thought about was himself. Now he wakes up and thinks about what’s going on in the world around him. Education has changed his perspective on everything.

Elisabeth: The standout story for me is Michelle, a young mother sentenced to life who found her way out through education. She went on to set up a charity offering support to women after they’ve come out of prison. What struck me was how determined she was not just to sort herself out, but to help others with similar experiences. She could have settled on getting an education for herself and for her family, but she wants to be in a position of influence. That’s extraordinarily impressive.

Alexandra: I’m struck by the fact that the people PET helps often end up being more major contributors to society than those who haven’t had those experiences. As human beings we are fascinated by transformation – the before and after. For our learners to have the strength of character to come from rock bottom and change absolutely everything about themselves is astonishing – most mortals can’t do it. I’m repeatedly blown away by that inner strength and courage.

"To do distance learning, you have to have resilience and self-belief."

What do you think about the future of education in prisons? What are the most important areas for PET to focus on?

Alexandra: What is still long overdue and absolutely essential is the introduction of digital technology in prisons. It would have a massive impact on distance learning, ensuring that we could deliver a broader range of services at a much lower cost and much more efficiently. But this will take time.

Meanwhile, I believe that individuals’ lateral growth is really important: employability is crucial but by no means the only benefit of education. As an organisation, should we also explore broadening students’ education, rather than simply focusing on upwards progression? Why shouldn’t people in prison be able to do 10 or 12 GCSEs rather than have us tell them, ‘you’ve done one or two GCSEs, so now you can go on to A Levels’?

Elisabeth, you’ve held a large number of Chair and Director roles in the past - which do you think offers the most lessons for working with PET?

Elisabeth: While working with the parliamentary and health service ombudsman, I’ve been doing a Masters in dispute resolution. The act of education and learning as an adult is not easy. With all the advantages you'd think I’d have, you’re still exposed, still at the bottom of your learning curve. To do distance learning, you have to have resilience and self-belief. It’s been so rewarding to work and study at the same time: spending the nights exploring the theory and then the next day putting it into practice.

“Look, we all have one thing in common: we all deliver services in prisons and think it could be better. So why don’t we focus on that and identify things we can work on together?”

What has been your biggest achievement as Chair?

Alexandra: On becoming PET chair I also became the first chair of the PLA. We brought 23 disparate organisations together around a table, all working in the same field and some initially wary of each other because they’re competing for funding. All credit must go to Nina Champion, PET’s Head of Policy at the time, who said, “Look, we all have one thing in common: we all deliver services in prisons and think it could be better. So why don’t we focus on that and identify things we can work on together?”

We produced reports on rehabilitation, a theory of change, and education commissioning, which attracted real attention from successive secretaries of state. And I’m proud that, as interest in – and the success of – the PLA grew, we had the courage as an organisation to let go. We opened up membership and appointed a new, independent chair, and I’m delighted to say we’re now at over 100 members.

Having been PET’s chair for six years now, do you have any advice for Elisabeth as she takes up the role?

Alexandra: Elisabeth needs absolutely no advice from me at all, but what I’ve found most rewarding is being directly involved in the work of the organisation: meeting learners, policy makers, partners, and visiting prisons. That has been fascinating and life-enriching. I’ve got a lot out of it personally and I hope that I’ve been able to contribute in that way too.

Do you have a message for Alexandra?

Elisabeth: My message is really succinct – thank you and don’t be a stranger. You’re a tough act to follow. Your commitment, understanding, diligence and knowledge – these were always unquestionable. But from talking to you, it’s your passion and your absolute dedication that shines through. You’ve created a legacy that will last and that will stand us in good stead - I only hope I can replicate that.

Click here to read the announcement of Elisabeth Davies' appointment.