Writing this blog comes at an ideal time. In moving to a post at a different university and having stepped away from the running of a Learning Together module (for now at least), I have had the opportunity to reflect on my experiences of developing and running a Learning Together course while at the same time being involved in the development of the Learning Together Network. More recently, my reflections have been instigated by the published Evaluation of Leeds Beckett University Prison: Learning Together Programme 2017 by Dr Suzanne Young (University of Leeds). This evaluation has not only enabled me to relive some of the experiences of Learning Together through the voices of the students in the report, but I have also been able to consider the work ahead in developing how we ‘do’ Learning Together while still ascribing significant value to the fluidity and flexibility with which various partnerships deliver their courses.
I am writing this blog on the train on the way home from giving a talk for a Manchester University seminar on prison/university partnerships. My talk was ‘Learning Together in High Security’ and very much focused on the implications of delivering such a course in that particular kind of institution. Within the talk I made reference to the evaluation and began to discuss how we respond to the outcomes and what we can learn from them.
Being the last speaker of the session in which others spoke about their Learning Together experiences, there was some repetition in what I had planned to say, however this became important because it highlighted clearly what many of us already know about the outcomes of Learning Together courses as a whole. We know that as a result of studying on a Learning Together course, many students experience an increase in self-confidence. We know that through the breaking down of social barriers, all students can experience a sense of humanisation through their temporary situation within an environment characterised by care and civility, and learning that is free from some of the less positive characteristics of ‘traditional’ higher education. And finally, we know that students improve their academic skills as well as their skills in social interaction. Moving on from ‘what we already know’, the publication of Dr Young’s evaluation creates an opportunity to start thinking about the longer term and how we respond to some of the challenges we face.
One element of the evaluation that is worth mentioning is the clarification of how both sets of students benefit from the module. At times, focus can be placed too substantially on the prison based learners. Perhaps this is because we are more aware and sensitive to the deficiencies in some of the previous educational experiences of our prison based students, and the deficiencies in the opportunities that are afforded in their current circumstances and this creates a perception that they are more ‘in need’ of the opportunity of Learning Together. However, in trying to create an environment of equality and parity, we must come back to our original purpose of running the course. For the Leeds Beckett programme, it was, and remains to be, about replicating (as far as possible) the university learning experience on a prison site. As such, we must not be drawn to focus more attention on prison-based students than those from the outside community despite our positive intentions. Of course, this is not always the case and I am not suggesting so – however we must not become apologetic about university-based students acquiring important academic and employability skills through this programme (as well as the important aforementioned social skills). Doing so does not mean that prisoners are being ‘used’ to gain these benefits, it simply means that the two sets of students are benefiting from the module, and their membership of our learning community, but sometimes in very different ways – both of which should be celebrated. It is also noteworthy that educators too are benefiting from the experience. Teaching and learning strategies have to be developed with the absence of technology which is, in itself, an important exercise which reminds us of the fundamental ‘nuts and bolts’ of what makes a good, engaging higher education learning experience.
Another issue that I would like to address is around the “what next?” question. Perhaps more relevant to the high security estate, we must acknowledge that the lives of our students in prison will not move on in the same way as our students in the free community following the course delivery; at least not in the immediate future. A Learning Together module can last anywhere between 3 and 12 weeks. In prison, as time is experienced acutely painfully, this time frame may be seen as significantly short and the absence of peers and educators will come around very quickly. In developing a partnership with a prison, we have come to a point where more consistent presence in the prison would be beneficial both to the partnership and to prisoners. Some partnerships are already running multiple Learning Together courses and wrap around community building activities, such as writing and reading groups and mentor development programmes. Through these initiatives, a more consistent presence is slowly being built within partner prisons. However, this is not always possible due to time and resource constraints and thus, we can think about how to achieve this consistency by developing projects without the same resource implications. One such example is the Beckett+ project which involves monthly guest lectures in the prison which can be accessed by prisoners on an optional basis; another example is similar the ‘Big Ideas’ seminar series at HMP Whitemoor facilitated by the University of Cambridge.
I established the Beckett+ project shortly before leaving Leeds Beckett University because I wanted to normalise the presence of the university within the prison. This also created an opportunity to involve colleagues from disciplines across the university which sat well with prisoners’ enthusiasm for more varied learning experiences/subject areas. This project runs alongside the annual Learning Together module as a teaching and learning initiative. Each of the monthly lectures covers a different subject area and each adopts a different teaching and learning strategy.
This has benefits both to the university and the prison as per the agreement of the partnership that all activity should be reciprocally beneficial. For the university, staff from across the university can engage with the prison/university partnership and take the opportunity to develop their teaching and learning practice in a different kind of environment. This may have developmental implications for both prison-based and campus-based teaching and learning techniques; and therefore have positive implications for students studying on university campus. For the prison, a programme that is optional and requires no formal assessment may be more appealing to the ‘hardest’ to reach; those for whom education is a daunting prospect and thus would not be attracted to a more formal accredited Learning Together programme. In addition, data on prisoner uptake and engagement can be fed back into the prison education department to inform curriculum design and teaching strategies to encourage more to attend lower level education classes (particularly those who would not have considered doing so previously).
While Learning Together partnerships are receiving high praise, we must also be conscious not to ignore the challenging culture within which these programmes are situated. Prisons are the domain of prisoners but also staff who keep them safe. As we know, prisons, as ‘microcosms of wider society’, have their own norms, folkways and cultures and as such we must now think more about how higher education (delivered in a variety of ways) can begin to become ‘the norm’. It is unsurprising that some prison staff are very supportive of Learning Together programmes whereas others are not. While we would like all in the prison to be supportive of what we are trying to achieve, we must not be naïve as to the reasons why this may not always be the case. I imagine what it must look like to prison officers (for example) to see academics with prison keys marching in and out with a group of happy, excited students every one or two weeks. This, for many, will be a potentially unnerving sight that induces concerns around security and safety and understandably there may be some prison staff who, at least initially, do not feel happy nor comfortable with the situation. Going forward, therein lies another challenge; to embed these higher education practices within the fabric of the prison in a way that sees all prison staff being better informed about our programmes, their aims and evidenced outcomes. Doing so would not only help to give prison staff more understanding but also develop, more widely, a culture of learning whereby officers on wings will have conversations with prisoners about the educational activities they are involved in. We already know this does happen, but we also know that some prison staff may not feel supportive due to a lack of information/understanding of our programmes. It is the responsibility of our partnerships to consider how we engage with the whole prison institution within our partnerships to create a more unified environment of support.
I promised a short blog and therefore I’ll stop there, although there are further considerations to discuss another time. I hope that there is some food for thought in my reflections and recommendations – all of which I’m sure you’ve already considered. But hopefully this will enable us to start thinking more specifically about how we take things forward and strive for continuous improvements in our partnership work. I would like to sincerely thank Dr Suzanne Young again for her evaluation and the accuracy with which it represents the 2017 Prison: Learning Together course. I hope others take as much from it as I have.
Dr Helen Nichols, Senior Lecturer, University of Lincoln