Prisons and universities team up in London

26 Oct 2016

By Nina Champion 

‘We have more in common than divides us’

A poignant phrase that has appeared in the media this year, spoken by the late Jo Cox MP in her maiden speech, was used in a different context in a packed chapel at HMP Brixton this month, in an event designed to celebrate the success of prison/university partnerships and promote them across London.

The day was organised by Dr Amy Ludlow and Dr Ruth Armstrong of Cambridge University, who started a partnership project with HMP Grendon named Learning Together. Similar projects are now popping up in different prisons and universities across the country, and the room was full of prison and university staff eager to hear about other projects to gain insight and inspiration for setting up new ones themselves.  

The project found an influential advocate in Liz Truss MP, who attended the event to deliver her first speech on prison education as Justice Secretary. Truss watched a short film made by learners at HMP Grendon and Spring Hill. She described the film as "inspirational” and said: “What struck me was how you have helped open up what happens in prisons to the university students. Most of society doesn’t know what happens in prisons.”

She went on to say that for her, prison education was more than just the essential basics of literacy, numeracy and vocational skills, but also about “changing minds and attitudes” and that discussions, group work and subjects like philosophy and criminology can be effective ways of achieving this aim. 

To those who were concerned that the new Justice Secretary might roll back on plans to implement the Coates reforms, she clearly set out her vision that she wants “prisons to be places of learning where people can change their lives”.  

She promised to “empower governors to have more control over education to bring in innovative programmes like Learning Together from outside. It’s very exciting.”

"It was the first time my family had seen me collect something other than my sentence."

The conference was held on 13 October to mark International Day of Education in Prison (IDEP) which recognises the anniversary of the recommendations of the Council of Europe about prison education. Rod Clark, Chief Executive of PET, opened the event drawing attention to recommendation 15: “Where education has to take place within the prison, the outside community should be involved as fully as possible.” Learning Together is a fantastic example of this, physically bringing groups of students and teachers into prisons to study as one class.

NOMS Regional Head of Learning and Skills for London, Andy Woodley, described how he took part in the 12 week course at HMP Grendon, completing assignments and studying alongside students from the prison and Cambridge. He described seeing for himself changing “minds and attitudes” of both sets of students.

Before the course the prisoner learners were nervous that they were not ‘good enough’ to study alongside Cambridge undergraduates, he said. “But during the course they turned into a group of prisoners who believed they were worthy of doing a degree.” He quoted a participant as saying: ‘It was the first time I felt I belonged to normal people. It was the first time I realised I could understand difficult things and even explain them to other people.’ Another said: "It was the first time my family had seen me collect something other than my sentence."

Ingrid, a Cambridge student who spoke about her experience teaching said: “We all begin to see our similarities. There is a change of perspective. I am not just teaching, I’m learning too. It’s about relationships. We all learn from each other.”

So what are the other benefits? Helen Nicholls and Bill Davies from Leeds Beckett University who run a Learning Together course in HMP Full Sutton, a maximum security prison, said the experience "gave everyone a nice warm fuzzy glow!" Amy and Ruth describe: "beautiful and life giving moments in those classes", while others spoke of "amazing energy", ‘transformative experiences’ and the hope it creates for the future."

In feedback from discussion groups, those at the event were keen to see these individual projects in a more strategic and wide-ranging context. Ideas for this included sharing best practice, combined theory-led evaluations, developing pathways for students to go to university on ROTL or after release and campaigning for transparent and fair university admissions procedures for those with convictions.

The good news is that a new network, being set up by PET, called PUPiL (Prison University Partnerships in Learning) will aim to provide a hub for different projects.  Through links with PET’s Prison Learning Academic Network and Prisoner Learning Alliance we hope to develop a strategic context for the projects to influence policy and practice and to help them demonstrate and improve their impact.

"I am not just teaching, I’m learning too. It’s about relationships. We all learn from each other.”

The discussion groups included residents of HMP Brixton, two of whom were in my group. They posed the challenge about how to secure a change a culture across the whole prison and not just have these projects benefit those who take part in it. One solution, happening at Leeds Beckett University, was to offer Continuing Professional Development courses to prison staff and even physiotherapy students are running clinics for officers, as well as running a Learning Together programme for prisoners. They hope that by embedding the university with staff, as well as prisoners, that it will help develop a change of culture and secure a long lasting partnership.

Richard Ward from NOMS suggested that Learning Together could be a useful platform to encourage prisoners to apply to PET for distance learning courses or Open University access courses or degrees. Henry Smithers, Head of Learning and Skills at HMYOI Feltham, who is planning a Learning Together programme with Royal Holloway University, said that for him the planning process has made him consider how they could make all learning in prison more engaging.

“It’s about learning for its own sake and its own reward,” he said. “Often prison education is about learning for other reasons: for jobs or to pass exams. We have to think what makes learning normal, fun and exciting. We want our students to enjoy learning and want to learn.” 

For more information on PUPiL (Prison University Partnerships in Learning) please email our Senior Research and Policy Officer Morwenna Bennallick.