Our Stories: Studying GCSEs in prison

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27 August 2017

As students all over the country get their GCSE results this week, Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) spoke to three of its prisoner learners to find out about their experiences of studying at this level in prison.


I used to be suicidal until I found education

This Thursday, like many students across the UK, 37 year old Albert* will open his GCSE exam results, but unlike his fellow learners, he will open them in prison. Albert, who grew up in Zimbabwe, has coped with mental health issues throughout his life, which meant he missed out on much of his education growing up.

He decided to study a travel and tourism iGCSE to return to education and to help him work towards his goal of starting a new career in the travel industry but he has discovered it is also helping him cope with depression.

I used to be suicidal until I found my education, I discovered there is a lot more to live for, I didn’t realise I was capable of anything until I started getting positive feedback from teachers.

“I was suffering severe depression and self blame, self hatred due to the guilt and shame of what I did, but staff saw someone different, and motivated me to study”

PET first supported Albert with funding for a Tourism and Management Stonebridge course which he says gave him motivation to pursue the subject at GCSE level, “Studying my GCSE has been a long, tough journey with countless hours of studying, reading and writing assignments with the constant dramas of prison life. But I found it very easy to contact my outside teacher and resources with help from prison staff. Sometimes I could order books from the library and I bought my own textbooks with help from friends who support me outside.”

In the run up to his exam in June, Albert was given extra time in the education department to study, and the Distance Learning coordinator invigilated his exam. Albert is keen to keen progressing with this subject and would like to continue studying at a higher level. He said:

“Thank you to PET for giving me the funding it has really changed the way I look at myself. I used to struggle with remorse and the trauma I have put people in but I am trying to put this in the past. I hope this negative situation will give me a positive outcome for a better crime free future. I hope my experience can motivate other people; there’s no limits to education.”


How the creative arts and law changed my life

Stephen has just been released from prison and is looking forward to beginning an Art and Design Diploma at Brighton and Hove City College. This return to adult education in his 50s is a huge achievement for Stephen, who always found school difficult due to his dyslexia. A few years ago Stephen arrived in prison aged 50, with no GCSEs.

After completing his level 1 English and Maths qualifications in the prison education department, Stephen began to pursue his interest in the creative arts. Stephen started work in the Art department as an orderly; giving advice to fellow students and helping the tutor run the arts sessions. This motivated him to study an Arts and Design course, “I wanted to break the cycle of just sitting in my cell, watching crap telly all night and repeating that cycle everyday. Instead I wanted to use my time effectively and through my art I was able to express myself.”

After becoming a learning champion whilst at HMP Lewes, Stephen began to gain confidence and applied to PET to study a Law GCSE. He said “It was a big step for me to study law, because I have never studied at that level before.

Without the help of PET and the education staff at Lewes, I might have given up, because I wouldn’t consider myself a natural learner.

During his studies Stephen experienced many difficulties including limited access to the prison library due to prison lockdowns. He also had to obtain his level 1 and 2 qualifications to be eligible to study a GCSE and he found this a challenge because of his dyslexia. However, he praised his Distance Learning teacher for the support she offered, and for helping him purchase a specific Law textbook which was unavailable in the prison library.

Despite these barriers, Stephen found his Law GCSE extremely stimulating: “I’ve always been fascinated by Law, especially in relation to the history of common law and I really enjoyed some of the scenarios presented by the course, such as, challenging me to think like a solicitor in order to resolve a case study.”

Now Stephen is back in the community, after serving a four year sentence, he aims to complete the remaining four assignments left in his Law GCSE. He said “The work you guys at PET are doing is absolutely great, because with your support I was allowed to study past level 1 and 2. You have allowed so many people to benefit from education and that is a truly great thing you are offering.”

GCSE helps boxing enthusiast realise fitness ambition
Robert*, 27, left school without any GCSEs but has always wanted to work in the fitness industry. PET funded Robert’s Human Biology GCSE last September and he now has just four assignments left, which he plans to complete when he leaves prison next month. Robert says he has received a lot of support from staff at HMP Ashfield.

“Distance Learning Lead Andrew Morris and other education staff members here are very good and the feedback my tutor sends me is very clear and easy to understand” says Robert.

During his seven year sentence Robert has studied a number of courses in subjects including Maths, English and ICT Level 2. After initially applying for a Sports Physiotherapy course with PET, Robert was advised by PET’s Advice Manager John Lister to undertake a more widely recognised qualification. Robert said he has found his GCSE challenging but this has made him more determined than ever to continue studying the subject at A/AS Level and up to degree level.

Robert is currently working as a gym orderly in prison. He has found that he can use the knowledge he has gained from his GCSE to advise fellow prisoners on matters such as correct training techniques, as well as any sports related injuries they may be experiencing. Robert is hoping to use his qualification as a platform to return to the sport he loves, boxing. Robert discovered his passion for boxing at a young age and proclaimed that it gave him a huge boost of self esteem and confidence.

So as well as continuing his studies into higher education, after completing his GCSE he will use this to revitalise his boxing career.

*Real names have been changed

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