Learner Voice and Learning Champions at HMP Elmley

6 Jan 2013

Nina Champion, PET's Head of Policy, writes about HMP Elmley's Learning Champions:

'Help me, help you, help others’ is the inspiring motto of the prisoner Learning Champions at HMP Elmley who I visited on a bitter cold winter's day on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. One recommendation in the Brain Cells report, 2nd Edition, that Prisoners Education Trust published in November 2012, was that prisons should involve learners in decision-making through Learner Voice forums and by appointing Learning Champions. The Manchester College staff at HMP Elmley already has both in place so I was keen to visit and meet the reps to find out more. Read my interview with three learners and staff below.  

What do learning champions do?

“I work with the induction team. I tell new prisoners about education, what levels are available. I act as a mentor.”

“Not everyone who could do education does education, so we are trying to increase numbers.  At the moment about 100 people attend education everyday (for half a day) but we have places for 120."

“We are not just based in education. We go out to the houseblocks. Some of the guys think they are too big to learn, they are too bolshy. They say why should I earn £9 per week in education when I can earn £20 per week as a wing cleaner?  It’s hard but I get satisfaction from persuading people to give education a go, especially when I see them progress. I like giving back”.  

“People do the BSA [literacy and numeracy] tests when they first get here but often they aren’t in the right frame of mind, they can’t be bothered and so they don’t try. We persuade them to do it again to see what level they are at. As prisoners ourselves we carry more weight to help convince them to fill in an education application."

How do you persuade people to take give learning a try?

“I always say to people ‘have you got kids? Do you want to be able to help them with their homework?’ That usually works! I am also a Toe by Toe literacy mentor, so I might start by giving them some help with reading and writing informally on the houseblock then get them to go to education. Some have been told they are dumb and stupid so they say ‘I’m not good enough to go to education’. I help them see they can achieve”.

“I encourage people to attend education by getting them to look at the long view. It is a stepping stone to earning money when you are out. It is hard through especially if they don’t have much money sent in. I try to give them some career advice and ask what they want to become and explain they need English and maths to do that. In the training to become a Learning Champion and in the mentoring course we are given scenarios to practice giving this advice”.

"I tell people learning is something they can use in the future and will stop them getting bored in prison."

What do you need to become a Learning Champion and what training and support are you given?

“To be a Learning Champion you need level one English, good communication skills and to be able to relate to people. We are given guidelines how to operate and the mentoring training is also useful as the Learning Champions operate on same principles as mentors”.

“The Learning Champions all meet together once a month.  At Learning Champion meetings we all swap notes (we keep notes on all help we have given) and also swap ideas."

What do you get out of being a Learning Champion?

“I feel a sense of empowerment when I have motivated someone to come in, but I also need to keep them motivated to keep them coming in. It is good to see someone who was told they are thick on the outside, progress and start to use positive language about themselves like ‘I can read this’.

“As a Learning Champion I have learnt to communicate better, how to give information and to check they have understood it correctly.  I have learnt on the mentoring course about learning styles, hierarchy of needs and about respect."

How does the Learner Voice Forum work and what changes has it made?

“Sometimes in prison you feel like you are not being heard so the learner rep puts your points across for you on the classes’ behalf at the meetings”. 

“Most issues at the Learner Voice meetings relate to wages, as you get more in the workshops not learning anything. Other issues are like library access and people asking for more and different books, for example, some people want books on mentoring. We got the library access changed so it is better, but the wages haven’t changed."

Teachers say prisoners gain life skills through Learner Voice

The Manchester College staff Anne and Alison run the peer mentoring course on a Friday afternoon.  Anne said the mentoring class, where people can go on to become Learning Champions or Learner Voice Reps, is “hugely passionate, very creative and full of ideas”.  She has identified that “communication skills, such as taking turns at speaking”, are improved on this course and that is useful training for both these roles, as well as being a valuable life skill. 

Colin Morris, OLASS Manager at HMP Elmley (The Manchester College), says that engaging learners as Learning Champions and Learner Voice reps makes the learning environment and experience better.

He said: "It also makes the prison a nicer and safer place. It helps retain staff if it is nicer place to work too. Ofsted are also keen to see learner engagement. Many of the men are intelligent but not educated, so the Learning Champions can help them gain qualifications and an education.

"I think the Personal and Social Development aspect of what we offer in education is probably the most important element.  If you cannot function, help others, be punctual and have the right attitude it doesn’t matter what skills or qualifications you have. Education must be holistic. Taking responsibility as a Learner Voice Rep or a Learning Champion promotes this."

"People think education is going to be like school, but they don’t realise how different the experience it is. The prisoners can help explain this to others more effectively than we can. They also have some very good ideas. It was the Learner Voice Reps who came up with the idea of having learning champions. Learning Champions are role models, they are not paid, but men are queuing up to be involved. It is going from strength to strength”.

It was great to see such enthusiasm for meaningful learner engagement at HMP Elmley and their motto “help me, help you, help others” sums up perfectly what is being achieved. I hope this example of good practice inspires other prisons to develop their own learner involvement strategy. 

Find out more about Learner Voice.