Learning from Learning Together

31 May 2016

By Morwenna Bennallick


Learning Together began as a partnership between enthusiastic criminologists and educators at the University of Cambridge and governing staff at HMP Grendon. Bringing university students into the prison to learn with prisoners residents, the course celebrated its second graduation ceremony last month

The course was developed to promote learning with and from each other. However, it has grown to be more than a programme for students and prisoners. It has become a springboard for promoting and developing inclusive learning environments across the estate, as more and more institutions push to get involved.

The structure of the Learning Together conference encapsulated the ethos of this collaboration; the first day was hosted by the staff and residents of HMP Grendon and the second at the grand St Johns College, University of Cambridge.

On arrival at Grendon we were arranged into small groups, each of which were facilitated by a current prisoner. Discussion ranged from the critical pedagogy of Brazilian educationalist Paulo Friere, to personal accounts of how education had inspired us. Later in the day, Cambridge and Grendon Learning Together graduates delivered an eloquently written and powerfully delivered lecture on the criminological thinking behind the programme. The level of critical engagement across the prison’s conference centre was inspiring. Certain themes kept repeating themselves as the conference attendees – prisoners, prison staff, academics, charity workers – discussed their experiences of education. The word ‘equality’ was mentioned on several occasions, as was ‘respect’, ‘understanding’, ‘creativity’ and ‘fun’.

On day two, we first heard from the founders of the project, Dr Amy Ludlow and Dr Ruth Armstrong. They told us that the central philosophy of their work is to “develop inclusivity through belief in potential”. In focusing on this, they were able to set motivation as the only entrance criteria to taking part in the programme. Equality is fundamental to the Learning Together approach, not just to foster effective, dialogic learning but also to diffuse power and promote co-creation.

Jamie Bennett, the governor of HMP Grendon, spoke about the many benefits he has seen derive from the collaboration. He has seen prisoner students thrive from the intellectual challenge, experience meaningful personal development and develop grow a deeper sense of social consciousness. He sees the impact as going far beyond the individual, but being a movement towards the “remoralisation of both prisons and universities”. By working with the “better elements of the nature of prison culture" these partnerships focus on “the future trajectory of those who work within this programme”, and gives a legitimate way for prisoners to challenge some of the inbuilt inequalities of the system.

Many more prison-university partnerships are developing across the country. Helen Nichols from Leeds Beckett and Shaun Williamson from HMP Full Sutton discussed their collaboration. They highlighted the significance of parity between all learners – and told the audience that if Full Sutton learners can’t use the internet to support their essays neither can Leeds Beckett learners. Ross Little of De Montfort University and Helena Gosling from Liverpool John Moores University spoke of their challenges in receiving accreditation from their universities. Helena said she has overcome these hurdles by returning to the philosophy of “celebrating the potential to learn” and challenging the perception that all students must be at a similar starting point.

By bringing together university representatives, prison practitioners and students from both sides of the wall, this conference has developed an enthusiastic and energetic starting point for many future collaborations and wide-reaching, fulfilling learning experiences.