"I spent 40 years being told I was stupid. Distance learning changed that"

Women studying in prison

This winter, we are raising money for women learning in prison. Every year, we fund over 200 women to take distance learning courses or receive arts materials. Communications Manager Katy Oglethorpe travelled to Cheshire’s HMP Styal to meet some of them.

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Why did you choose to do distance learning in prison?

Amber: I was 18 when I came to prison so I was young enough to be in that ‘Higher Education mode’. I started working in the gym and realised I was passionate about that and I wanted to pursue it - so I applied for fitness courses and then studied nutrition. Now I’m building up my qualifications so I can be a gym instructor when I get out.

Denise: I have a long sentence so job opportunities weren’t at the top of my mind. I chose my courses - psychology and counselling - out of wanting to change how I thought about the outside world. My whole behaviour changed because of my CBT course: my thoughts weren’t negative straight away. The best part was that I had to approach the assignments as if I was a counsellor. That was key - it was as if I was helping someone else.

Has your course helped you in any ways beside the qualification?

Jennie: It’s given me a lot more confidence. Before I was too frightened to speak in class or ask questions. When I did my first peer mentor course in the prison I would be like this [edges chair back] - wanting to hide under the table. I’d never give an answer, but when people would go up to the front I’d realise again and again they were giving answers I was thinking in my head. Now I’m a mentor and when we set ground rules we always start with ‘No question is a silly question’.

Cathy: You’re right, that’s important - learning that no question is a daft question, that no-one’s going to shout you down for asking it or tell you you’re stupid.

Many women who arrive in prison have experienced trauma. The course helped me to speak to them.

Amber: When I was doing the OU degree I remember thinking there were loads of other students who were doing the same thing. It makes you feel normal - because it’s a normal thing, isn’t it - being a student. Prison’s about social exclusion but this is more about being part of society.

Cathy: I’ve studied so many courses since I’ve been here which have all taught me different things. Recently I studied Grief and Bereavement Counselling with PET. Before I did the course I would shy away from [the subject]. You see it with people around death - they don’t know what to say or do. I know what it’s like to be in pain and I’ve lost close members of my family. That’s shared by a lot of the women here - you’d be surprised how many have suffered grief and bereavement.

Has doing these courses changed your relationship with the women around you?

Jennie: Yes - doing a qualification in coaching and mentoring helped myself, but it also helped me to help other people in here. There is satisfaction in helping someone else, who is where you were. You think ‘I was once in that black hole, but I got myself out’.

Amber: There is a sense of pride in helping others. It makes you feel warm inside.

Cathy: Many women who arrive in prison have experienced trauma. The course helped me to speak to them. You need to offer people a safe space to speak. Being someone who has been through it yourself and has moved forward from their life being turned upside down - that makes a big difference.

That’s how you know you’ve chosen the right course isn’t it? When you can’t stop thinking about doing it during the day at work

What was education like for you in school?

Cathy: I hated school. Because of my dyslexia - I don’t think they knew how to work with that. I spent the whole time thinking ‘I can’t do that’. It was only when I was older that I got into education, and I suppose I realised I could do it.

Jennie: It was the same for me. I spent the first 40 years of my life being told I can’t do anything and was stupid. That’s why receiving that letter from PET saying I’d been funded, it is difficult to express how amazing that was - that someone was believing in me.

What do you enjoy about studying?

Jennie: The support from the outside tutors is so valuable. My tutor at the moment [for a counselling course] is a nun. She’s really down on everything - punctuation, grammar. But it’s useful. She said at the beginning: “You might not like what I put in the feedback but it’s constructive.” And it works - it gets you thinking out of the box.

Courses like these are the only way we have to really progress and better ourselves.

Cathy: My last course - I couldn’t put it down. I’d get a new assignment and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’d get back to my cell and I’d think, ‘I’ll just take a peek inside the pack’, then I’d think ‘Just a little bit more’, and then I’d start jotting things down. Eventually I’d be like ‘Right, I’m going to burn the midnight oil’.

Amber: That’s how you know you’ve chosen the right course isn’t it? When you can’t stop thinking about doing it during the day at work - you just think: ‘I’ve got to get back to get it done’.

Could you sum up the difference being funded has made to you?

Jennie: Courses like these are the only way we have to really progress and better ourselves. We can’t go further with education in the prison system. Being funded gives that little bit of hope. Getting that letter from someone who doesn’t know me, but who knows I’m in prison… that’s giving hope and inspiration.

Amber: Getting an opportunity to change your life, that’s the biggest thing. It’s a humbling feeling. And it’s a hopeful feeling too. It’s like when you’re learning, your head’s not ‘in the gate’ [thinking about release] - you go to a sort of ‘learning bubble’. But at the same time you can see out of the corner of your eye there’s a bridge leading to the outside world. You think, with what I’m learning I can get to that bridge - I can even cross it one day.

All names have been changed.

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