What’s education got to do with it?

29 Sep 2016

If you joined the Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA) Annual Conference on 16 September, chances are you thought education in custody was a pretty thing. But what does learning actually offer someone in prison? And if we consider education to be so valuable, how to we encourage more to engage?

This was up for debate in the final panel of the day, when a governor, teacher, researcher and two former prisoners discussed the value of education, and how to encourage all prisoners to engage in learning.

The discussion was sparked by the PLA’s recently published report: What is prison education for? A theory of change exploring the value of learning in prison, which identifies five core benefits of learning in custody.

As PET’s Policy Head Nina Champion, said, introducing the panel, these benefits extend beyond the usual metrics of qualifications and employability.

She said: 

“Education is often discussed in the context of enabling someone to get a job, when in reality it offers a more complex set of benefits. It therefore requires us to think more about what, how and who delivers education to maximise those benefits for each individual."

Award-winning teacher Vilma Smith-Yates, a teacher at HMP Wymott, agreed that there was too much emphasis on “ticking boxes” in prison education. She went on to compare teaching in this context to working in a quarry.

“In a quarry you are surrounded by rocks of different shapes and qualities. The small rocks might just need a bit of polishing, but the large rocks might be more demanding to shape. In my experience, one size doesn’t fit all - and not all rocks can be shaped with the same tools.”

Vilma said that while getting a qualification was valuable, what was more important was personal and social development; “giving the life skills and transferrable skills that are the building blocks for employability”. 

Lauren Cherry, who works for Life Clubs, bringing social development courses into prisons, said education in custody needed to focus more on building confidence and improving resilience. Lauren, who herself spent time in prison, recommended “stripping back to what that person’s core values are, and reminding them that there was something they enjoyed at an earlier part of their lives” to engage reluctant learners.

“Any governor worth their salt should be out knocking on doors and spreading the word: prison is open for people to come in and engage with prisoners.”

The panel grappled with how to change the culture of a prison to make it more conducive to learning. 

Former prisoner Ben, who was funded by PET, said: When I first went to prison the culture was definitely dog-eat-dog. It was violent and you did what you should to survive. Education was not looked on as important.”

Ben, who is now working full time and in the process of setting up his own business, pressed the importance of using former prisoners back into prison to share their stories with current inmates.

“It is the people who succeed outside and their ability to take their message into prison that is ultimately going to change things,” he said. “Any governor worth their salt should be out knocking on doors and spreading the word: prison is open for people to come in and engage with prisoners.”

Vilma said her student council, made up of men involved with education at HMP Wymott, had been instrumental in engaging other students.

“I’ve come across a lot of men who the system has failed, they are not interested and the feel like everyone is against them,” she said. “In most cases we are trying to build self belief from scratch - telling someone ‘I am listening to you, I respect you’ and fostering that positivity to make the person feel valued.”

Morwenna Bennallick, whose PhD is part-funded by PET, is conducting research at HMP Swaleswide, where she is looking at the creation of a learning culture in a prison environment. She said an key way of attracting people into education was “making the learning that is happening visible to everyone” by extending teaching from the classrooms into the wings, gyms and workshops. 

“We need to break down the walls of education by taking transformational processes to the people who aren’t witnessing it normally,” she said. “In this way you are able to see people who are really similar to you doing really well, and a learning culture can travel by osmosis.”

What she had gathered from her research so far, she said, was that education has to be “engaging, relevant, aspirational and empowering” and take place somewhere learners feel physically and psychologically safe. Education, she said, also had a part to play in creating a safe environment by producing a culture focused on learning.  

In most cases we are trying to build self belief from scratch - telling someone ‘I am listening to you, I respect you’

Kenny Brown, Cluster Governor for Wales, said safety concerns often presented a barrier to providing education in prisons.  

“When you take 30% out of prison budgets it impacts heavily,” he said. “But at last we have a government and a Prime Minister that recognise safety is a real issue in our prisons. There needs to be the confidence that more resources will come our way to deal with the safety issues. Once you have the safety element in place that will be better for everyone and will allow progress in other areas.” 

Kenny, who was previously governor of HMP Wandsworth prison, said he had been pleasantly surprised by the effectiveness of the Welsh system, which had a “joined up approach” between prisons, probation, police, health care and other entities. There was a “queue of people” from the private and voluntary sector who were keen to work with his prisons, he said.

Kenny closed by extending warm words to his co-panellists.

“When you’re sitting here listening to ex-offenders you can work out how good and able they are already,” he said. “They’d make excellent prison officers or even managers. That’s how we know we’ve nailed it.”

The Theory of Change is designed to stimulate debate about the value of prison education and how we can more strategically evaluate its value. Ultimately, it aims to improve its provision and include quality of prison education in prisons. Read the full report here