Our stories: Doing GCSES and A Levels in prison

So far this year, PET has funded over 200 people to take GCSE, AS Levels and A Levels in prison, a handful of whom managed to take their exams inside. As they await, lament or celebrate their results along with students up and down the country, we asked them why they chose to study these subjects, what effect it has had, and what they hope to do next.

‘Andrew’ - AS Level Philosophy

"It is not just something to do, it is something to devote myself to."

I had done A Levels upon leaving school, but failed miserably. I was, at the time, more interested in drugs. I’ve chosen to start studying because I cannot face the idea of spending my life doing nothing, going nowhere. I am doing a long sentence (deservedly so) but I see no reason why being in prison should mean I just stop. In studying I gain a sense of purpose, of development, of change, of movement; of autonomy, of agency, of responsibility. All things that, for many prisoners, are missing.

I chose Philosophy because I have an almost compulsive need to understand reality, myself, society etc. Thinking philosophically and reading philosophers has been a really important part of my coming to understand what I have done, why I did it, and how best to move forward. I hope to complete more A-levels before going on to study Philosophy Politics & Economics at degree level. It is not just something to do, it is something to devote myself to. That sounds quite serious - but I really do love philosophy!

Taking the exam was actually really fun. I was pleasantly surprised to understand the questions! I was getting A’s in some assignments, so hopefully I’ve got an A, but I’ve been doubting my answers ever since I finished the exam!

I think my family are happy that I am doing something constructive, so that perhaps in spite of what I have done, it is something they can be proud I am doing. It certainly makes me feel more human.

‘Kosta’ - GCSE English Language

"[P]ersonally I’ve been changed and am looking for hope."

IGCSE English Language was the first exam I’ve ever done. The motive was simply that it could better make me understand English, so I can go to study for A Levels. I am planning to study computer science. When I told that to my relatives, they were very happy and surprised, at the same time.

I was a bit nervous when I took the exam, but it was not as hard as I was expected it would be. I hope my grade will be above my expectations.

Because of the circumstances we are in, as prisoners, it is much better to study instead of just thinking about your sentence. Despite the challenges I face, I believe I’ve been rewarded just by getting funding for my course. After this, the higher the grade, the better.

Prisoners’ Education Trust can make a difference in a prisoner’s life, and personally I’ve been changed and am looking for hope.

‘Jon’ - A Level History

"You can say, ‘yes I can do it’ and then tell your family."

Some think I have chosen a strange subject in British and German history. But I chose it because it was a subject I found that you could easily form your opinion on from the sources given and [decide] what could have been done differently in hindsight. Instead of plunging straight in, I was advised to do the GCSE first to see if I had a feel for it. I enjoyed it so much I decided to apply for an A Level.

Every prison I have been in, I cannot fault the education department. They bend over backwards to assist, but they can only go so far. There are many challenges at studying at this level in prison - there is a lack of additional material; and if something major has occurred you are locked in the cell and not the classroom. On the other hand, this can work to your advantage as once you are locked in, you can study without interruptions.

One of the main rewards is achievement. You can say, ‘yes I can do it’ and then tell your family. It is also something to keep my mind active, to use up the time I have without just watching TV. It is too easy to go bonkers in here and by feeding my brain I wish to avoid that.

‘Shaun’ - AS Level Government and Politics

"I got through it, like everyone does."

I left school at 14 years old, no exams taken, never much liked school except football and P.E. I came to prison at 54 years old. The careers lady got me placed on a Level 2 course, then did a few GCSEs. I’ve now got eight and today I started another two. I took A Level Sociology last year and then started an AS in Government and Politics. I felt a bit nervous taking the exams, but I got through it, like everyone does. Dad would have been proud; alas he died during my Sociology course, but Mum seems pleased for me.

‘Tom’ - GCSE Business

"Doing a life sentence made me realise I need positivity, hope and a purpose to change."

 The biggest benefits have come out of being dedicated to something purposeful and learning something. I wouldn’t say it’s too difficult to study in here and there’s a lot of support from the tutors, staff and peers - it’s more about dedication.

It was nerve racking to take the exam, especially the build-up to it. But I got my head stuck in. Now I want to go on do a few more A level Business-related courses or onto a degree.

All names have been changed for the purpose of anonymity