PET launches study skills guide for prisoners

29 Sep 2016

Pwyll ap Stifin, Project Management Officer, Welsh Prisons Project 

Educating yourself isn’t easy. In prison particularly, our distance learners face significant barriers - no access to ICT, working in a cell rather than a classroom, sudden transfer between establishments, unpredictable access to the library, etc. But many are also held back by more prosaic issues.

Those who had a poor experience of school as children or who have been away from education for a number of years often seek our advice on how to manage time; how to write an essay; how to prepare for an exam and how to conduct research. While an ability to get to grips with the subject and to finish assignments on time are obvious factors in a student’s success; so too having a set of solid, transferrable study skills.

When the Welsh Prisons Project was established last year, we were asked to devise solutions to address the issues that hold our learners back. We decided to produce a handbook, providing concise, easy-to-digest guidelines about how to complete a distance-learning course in prison.

We couldn’t put together a guide to learning in prison without consulting learners themselves. After all, they know better than anyone what it requires to be successful when studying in prison. We wrote to all those whom PET had funded over the previous two years in the Welsh prisons to invite their views; consulted with PET’s Alumni Network in London; visited prisons in Wales to speak to learners and teachers and gathered the views of learners in HMP Swaleside through PET researcher Morwenna. We took all their ideas and feedback on board, and invited some of our alumni to write sections of the handbook according to their particular areas of expertise.

There was, however, something missing. We had a lot of good ideas about how to create a handbook on study skills that were specific to the prison environment: but we had no experience of teaching the fundamental skills that all students need to be successful.

In this regard we were very fortunate to establish links with Cardiff Metropolitan University. We started work in earnest with Dr Chris Dennis, the University’s Academic Skills Specialist, who has considerable experience in supporting students with study skills. With Chris’ help, we incorporated hints and tips that could be useful to all students. In this way, the handbook is reflective of the academic skills provision in university. Its aim is the same: to support students’ transition successfully into higher education.

As the handbook was drafted and redrafted we consulted with PET alumni, current learners and prison teachers regarding its content and tone, and we were very excited to receive the final printed copies in early August.

Sections include:

  • How to make a study timetable around your prison regime 
  • How to create a good studying environment in your cell 
  • How to deal with stress and anxiety around studying and exams 
  • A quick guide to punctuation! 

We have now begun distributing the handbooks to all newly funded PET learners in Welsh prisons. The handbooks come as part of a Learner Pack, which also includes a dictionary and a book on education kindly donated by Oxford University Press. We have also provided copies for Welsh prison libraries and education departments, to be freely available to anyone who wishes to use them.

Eventually we hope that every distance learner in Wales will have their own Learner Handbook. And, if the pilot is successful, we will be seeking funding to roll out the learner packs to English prisons too. By applying for a course with PET, each distance learner has already shown they have the motivation to learn. With the help of these handbooks, they will be equipped with the skills to get the best out of their course and progress to the next stage of their learning journey.