Learning from evaluation: moving forward together

hel picWriting 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 Lincolnhelen n

Running together for Learning Together

group photo

The Great South Run

Julie and SusieOn Sunday 21 October, the Learning Together team, colleagues, family, friends and supporters, took part in the Great South Run in Portsmouth, to raise money for Learning Together.  At the same time, we held sister (5km and 10km) runs in HMPs Whitemoor and Grendon. 40 of our brilliant students ran in Grendon (alongside the High Sheriffs of Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire!) and 25 students and members of staff ran in Whitemoor. We have been astounded and inspired by all the support we Lorna and Ruthhave received, through donations and by people willing to get involved, and run or cheer us on.

We all ran together to raise money to support students who take part in Learning Together, including by accessing educational opportunities as part of the Learning Together Network and in Cambridge, including through our new bursary support for Level 4 qualifications at the Institute of Continuing Education, with the support of the Longford Trust (see https://www.varsity.co.uk/news/16082).

AmySo far we have raised £3,805. A huge thanks for your support and donations. We are all enormously grateful!

If you would still like to donate you can do here:

Desistance and the prison: three things we’ve learnt from our evaluation of a prison-based diversion programme

It’s a joy to keep in touch with all of our Learning Together students and hear about what everyone is up to. Charlotte, one of our students from the 2015 ‘Introduction to Criminology’ course at Grendon, wrote to us recently with news of research in which she has been involved, evaluating the impact of a programme called ‘KeepOut’. Charlotte and her colleagues at the University of Surrey are hosting an event to share their research findings and she wanted to extend a warm welcome to all members of the Learning Together community. Read on, to learn more…


Picture credit: WIRE’s Authors (2017) ‘Mimicry in butterflies: The muse and the artist‘. Available at: https://www.advancedsciencenews.com/mimicry-butterflies-muse-palette-artist/ [Accessed: 17 August 2018].

For the last three years,  researchers at the University of Surrey have been exploring the impact of a prison-based crime diversion programme, ‘KeepOut’. Founded twenty years ago, KeepOut aimed to divert young people away from crime and support prisoners in their rehabilitation and journeys towards desistance.  KeepOut trained serving prisoners to deliver educational interventions to young people, aged 13-17, and identified as at risk of committing crime. The interventions comprised of a series of workshops incorporating drama, roleplay and games, and drew upon peer education, mentoring and cognitive-behavioural techniques. The aim was to engender victim awareness amongst the young people, to help them see the potential consequences of their actions, and to facilitate taking responsibility for them. We have come to the end of a three-year evaluation of KeepOut which has incorporated qualitative interviews with prisoners, practitioners and users groups who brought young people into the prison. It also included an outcome evaluation of reoffending rates of prisoners post-release, which was conducted by the Ministry of Justice Data Lab. The research has produced a great deal of rich data about desistance, facilitating the rehabilitation of prisoners, the delivery of interventions in the prison, and working with young people. Here are just three things we’ve learnt about supporting the desistance process of prisoners:

  1. Some prisoners are committed to desistance and wish to make amends. Despite the unpromising conditions within the prison, and the often-held belief that prisons can undermines rather that support reform, we found strong commitment to change and a desire to make amends amongst the cohort of prisoners who participated in the programme. This desire was usually situated within factors inherent to the individual, notably within the processes of maturation, in the context that many of those that had participated on KeepOut were serving long sentences.
  2. Commitment to reform was supported and facilitated through participation in KeepOut. Prisoners had very positive experiences of working on KeepOut. They got involved for multiple and various reasons, but the most dominant motivations were a desire to give something back to the community, personal commitment to reform, and to gain skills and experience to prepare them for release. Participants reported that participating was rewarding and empowering. Telling their personal testimonies allowed prisoners to reflect on their past behaviour, come to identify their past mistakes, and think about how to behave differently in the future. Providing prisoners with a chance to give something back and to help them make amends, enabled them to see themselves differently and to believe that a more positive life was possible. Strong and positive interpersonal and professional relationships with programme staff meant prisoners felt cared for, supported and believed in. This was motivating and it increased their self-understanding and sense of control, increased their self-esteem, and gave prisoners higher hopes for the future. In all, participation helped them feel that a crime free future was achievable post release.
  3. The longevity of these benefits is questionable. Certainly, our analysis reveals the need to be realistic regarding the long-term benefits of participation in programmes. Prisoners face daunting challenges on release, and KeepOut, or programmes like it, are only one part of a prisoner’s rehabilitation. No matter how committed to change they purport to be, nor how positive their experience of programmes has been, it is essential that prisoners are fully supported in preparing for release and in their transition back to the community. Any programme committed to rehabilitating prisoners needs to include components to prepare prisoners for release and ensure they are supported through-the-gate.


To hear the full story of this three-year evaluation we warmly invite you to attend our FREE upcoming conference, on 19 September. Drawing on our findings, the conference considers the promise for the promotion of desistance in the prison and the challenges that will be faced in realising that promise. The conference will focus on (1) the circumstances through which identity change occurs within prisoners and how identity change might be promoted and assisted in the prison; (2) the conditions which support or undermine the delivery of rehabilitative practices in the prison; (3) prisoner perceptions of rehabilitative practice within the prison; (4) the prospects for peer to peer education in prison; (5) prisoners motivations to participate in prison based rehabilitation and how this can be facilitated and undermined.

Tickets are available here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/desistance-and-the-prison-tickets-47847252420. All welcome!

Karen Bullock, Charlotte Dodds and Annie Bunce, University of Surrey

Karen Bullock is Professor of Criminology, Charlotte Dodds and Annie Bunce are Postgraduate Researchers, Department of Sociology, University of Surrey.  

Learning Together – the challenges and possibilities of learning differences

Over the years of running Learning Together courses we have found that many of our students have questions around possible learning difficulties and note that sometimes differences in learning styles mean they have trouble accessing some of the materials, or writing the essay at the end of the course.

At the heart of Learning Together, is the idea that bringing all of our differences together makes our learning more transformative. We that realising this ambition requires careful thought, which includes careful thought about specific learning differences (SLDs). We understand that learning can be difficult and even frustrating, where insufficient thought is given to the diverse ways in which we all learn, and the different forms of support we may all need to realise our learning goals. We also acknowledge that each learner may not know exactly why they find some things harder than other people seem to, and that this can lead to low self-esteem and negative feelings towards learning. This may be for a number of reasons, including a lack of funding for assessment and diagnoses, which can have the knock on effect that the necessary support isn’t put in place.

SLD blog graphic 1

So what are ‘Specific Learning Differences’?

On behalf of the Learning Together Team, I attended a briefing put on by the University of Cambridge to learn about SLDs and see what help might be available to support the LT community, and enrich our practices.

What we have learnt so far, is that the term SLD is an umbrella to describe a range of learning differences, which include dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism spectrum disorder. There is often an overlap in symptoms between these specific diagnoses, and all share difficulties in information processing. The Venn diagram below, about neuro-diversity, and the SLD overview handout below, provide further information about individual diagnoses.

SLD venn diagram

A resource from the briefing, originally sourced from DANDA

Importantly, an SLD diagnosis does not demonstrate a lack of capability; just that the individual may process and learn differently from others. No two people with SLDs present their symptoms or learning differences in the same way; many develop strategies throughout their life that allow them to complete tasks and excel in their learning.

We acknowledge that it is early days in our thinking, but we want to use what we have learned about SLDs to make the whole learning Learning Together environment and experience as accessible and inclusive as possible – helping us to fulfil a key value of Learning Together – nurturing talent wherever it is found.. We also want to promote understanding of SLDs within the Learning Together community.

What might this mean for Learning Together?

As a result of the briefing, I created some LT and SLD-friendly resources which we intend to share with course conveners next year to help them think about how to build a more inclusive learning environment.

Our use of technology to support learning has huge potential for increasing the accessibility of the learning experience. We are actively exploring ways in which we can strengthen our existing practices in this area and hope to implement innovations in time for the start of this academic year. This will include developing further audio-visual resources to complement written content and hopefully upgrading our Digital Learning Platform to include text to speech or speech to text software. We also hope to include an SLD resource page on the Platform, which we hope may be helpful for students who might be encountering challenges in their learning and are looking for good strategies that may help. Into the future, we plan to deepen our understanding of SLDs and will continue to work hard as a team and with our students to think about ways to develop our content and delivery so that everyone’s learning can be transformed by the skills of each and every student. Watch this space!

Izzie Rowbotham

How welcoming are our universities for people with criminal convictions?

Universities play important roles in understanding and advancing the world in which we live. Universities can nurture amazing talent and aspiration in people who go on to change thinking and shape the world for better. However there are longstanding calls for universities to welcome talent from a broader range of backgrounds and do more to increase social mobility. 

One of the theoretical interests that has informed the development of Learning Together, is the intersections between the sort of learning that is individually, institutionally and socially transformative, and the skills, connections and environments that support people to move away from crime[1]. We’re finding that the sorts of community in which people are enabled to learn well – in ways that are transformative – also often fulfil many of the needs and functions that help people to desist from offending. Yet, too often we find that people with criminal convictions are unable to join university communities, or else face substantial obstacles in so doing.

In this blog, I outline the results of some Freedom of Information requests we made to universities in England about their policies and practices for applicants with criminal convictions and, through this data, consider whether our universities could do more to welcome people with criminal convictions.

What did we ask?

We wanted to know how many people who apply to study at university declare they have criminal convictions; whether application levels differ by course; what percentage of applicants with criminal convictions have served custodial or non-custodial sentences; and how many offers universities make to people with criminal convictions. We also wanted to look at different universities’ policies and procedures for responding to the disclosure of criminal convictions. In an attempt to answer these questions we worked with Jacob Dunne (@JacobFreeman) to send 20 Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to ten different pairs of universities (20 universities in total). Each pair of universities was located in the same city or region. We used the University League Tables for 2016 to chose one of each pair, matching one from the top twenty with one from the bottom twenty of the top 100 universities[2]. Sixteen universities responded to our request. In the rest of this blog, we share what we found among those responses, reflecting on current practices and the potential significance of UCAS’ recent announcement to remove the request for declaration of criminal convictions in admissions applications for most higher education courses.

How did universities respond?

Only three universities responded to all 11 aspects of our FOI request. Gaps in responses were often justified by statements that the relevant data was not held centrally, or was not held at all, or that the provision of such data would be more burdensome on the institution than is considered reasonable and so need not be provided to comply with the Freedom of Information Act. In some cases, the provision of detailed information was refused on the grounds that numbers of relevant individuals were so low that publication of the information would risk identifying the students. The different responses and different justifications for lack of responsiveness painted a patchwork picture of disjointed practice. 

Despite all 16 universities having policies that made the question of criminal conviction relevant to admission decisions, many universities told us that they did not have records of the number of applications in which convictions were disclosed. The percentage of applicants declaring criminal convictions (in the thirteen institutions which provided this information) ranged from between 5.5 percent and 0.2 percent of total applications. For six of the sixteen institutions, there was a specific caveat in their response to our second request – ‘In the last three academic years (2013-14,14-15,15-16) how many applicants declared criminal conviction(s)?’- because they said many of the declarations were, in fact, in error.

Taking this into consideration, across the 10 institutions who responded to this point only four universities also gave data for how many applicants were successful. Of these four, one only provided these details for graduate and post-graduate applicants. One institution reported that 69% of applicants declaring criminal convictions were successfully admitted, but this appeared rather anomalous because the next highest offered a place to only a seventh of its applicants declaring criminal convictions. Considering that some of those admissions are possibly from applicants who were discovered to have declared a criminal conviction in error, the percentage of successfully admitted applicants with convictions is likely to be still lower than 7% of those who applied and declared their convictions.

Only 3 institutions responded with data about the total number of undergraduate applicants declaring criminal convictions, with one further university supplying only graduate and post-graduate data for applicants with convictions. Each of the three universities to respond declaring the total number of applicants, those who declared convictions and successful candidates within this subset, were in the lowest ten of the top 100 Universities League Table 2016. One of the three had extended offers to over 50% of applicants declaring a criminal convictions (although this included applicants who declared in error). The second made offers to approximately 9% of applicants declaring criminal convictions, and the third offered places to less than 5% of their declaring applicants. Only two institutions, both from the lower part of the universities league table, provided a full response to the number of applicants who had declared spending time in custody. Across these two universities, eight applicants with custodial convictions had applied and six enjoyed offers – a 75% offer-translation rate.

Three universities went to lengths to provide some information on the types of courses that people with convictions tended to apply for. These were provided in the form of spreadsheets in which, in one case, over 270 courses were listed. These figures, potentially, contained multiple applications from one person and so could not reliably reveal whether specific faculties were favoured by prospective students in any one instance. However, there were no faculties that were not represented at all. Applications from people with convictions were evident across wide range of subjects and formats of learning.

What might this mean?

It is difficult to make distinctions about whether the universities at the top of the league tables were more or less accommodating than those at the bottom. This is because the responses to the FOI requests were inconsistent, with Universities refusing to disclose different information for a variety of reasons. There are, perhaps, three conclusions we could arrive at through the data obtained: Firstly,  many people who apply to university with a criminal record are rejected. Secondly, there appears to be no standardised way of collating and using the information universities collect about applicants who declare criminal convictions. Finally, applicants declaring criminal convictions do not appear to have any bias towards particular subjects or faculties. This could go some way to illustrating the diversity of talent and drive among people with criminal convictions.

In recent months, a convergence of developments, has prompted a review of how universities manage and communicate decisions around applications from people declaring convictions. Among these, UCAS, the UK’s main universities admissions body, has changed how applications from people with criminal convictions are fielded. Until the most recent application cycle, UCAS application forms included two questions about criminal convictions. The first asked for details of any unspent, relevant convictions, and the second was about enhanced disclosure checks, which may be required for particular courses that include community placements, such as for medicine and teaching. This position has now been altered to remove the first question about criminal convictions from the application. As from the opening of the 2019 application cycle, only the second question will remain part of UCAS’ online application process.

For anyone who is thinking of applying, UCAS’ changes could have some positive, tangible impact. Having made significant efforts to push forward and engage in further or higher education, it will no longer be the case that universities will automatically see an applicant’s criminal convictions merely as a result of receiving an application from UCAS. This would be revealed only if it has specific relevance to the requested course of study. Questions remain about how individual universities will respond to the removal of the overarching request to declare unspent criminal convictions, and our data highlight substantial differences in how engaged individual universities are with these issues and how they are responding. If the positive potential of the UCAS change to limit discrimination on the grounds of previous criminal convictions is to be achieved, the response to our FOI requests suggests further work is needed. To really herald change in this arena it will take more than publicity of the UCAS decision to remove the initial criminal records declaration box. Publicity of this decision may encourage people with convictions to apply to university, but universities will need to build on this by developing policies and practices to guide informed decision making about applications from candidates with previous criminal convictions, and to put in place the rights sorts of support to enable people with criminal convictions to flourish at university. The demonstration of fair and reflexive application, enrollment and support practices could build confidence in, and the perceived legitimacy of, institutions aiming to change social thinking and shape the world for better.

Gareth Evans – Mentoring and Alumni Coordinator – Learning Together Team

[1] Armstrong, R. and Ludlow, A. (2016) Educational Partnerships Between Universities and Prisons: How Learning Together can be Individually, Socially and Institutionally Transformative. Prison Service Journal, vol. 225, p. 9-17. Crime and Justice, UK.

[2] https://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/league-tables/rankings?y=2016

The pen is more powerful than the sword

One of our ‘Free Writers’ in Whitemoor recently wrote the following poem and invited us to share it with the community. Enjoy!

One begins to realise, the pen is more powerful than the sword.

The sword has so much grief and pain, so many carrying it with an aimless and reckless cause, destroying without a pause.

Causing destruction wherever it is taken, cuts not knowing why it cuts, kills not knowing why it kills.

The world seems to be engulfed by dark clouds, the earth has been given blood to drink. How much more can it take? Man has truly fallen so low, taking life without a blink. How far is mankind willing to sink?

Does not the world think no more, where has gone the rule of law, where is the cure for this greed, why have we dropped the pen and forgotten to read?

So much has been achieved by the pen – history, science and philosophy. A sea of knowledge, teaching the meaning of life, guided and enlightened generations, forming great civilisations.

The pen is a weapon of the wise, taking many by surprise, defeated evil lies. Rulers, empires and regimes have struggled to suppress it.

The pen will continue to write, not giving up the fight, keeping the truth in sight, until the end of time hearts it will continue to ignite…

Narratives of success: the benefits and perils of hope

Stories of success through higher education in pripuerta abiertason have long been assessed for their potential to help people to develop positive lives beyond prison. Success, however, is normally measured narrowly, in terms of reduced risks of re-offending. Meanwhile, success for universities is often measured in terms of employment and graduate salaries. In this blog, I explore some of the early findings from our longitudinal study of the Learning Together initiative, focusing on the role of hope in  narratives of success among some of the students who have taken part in the initiative during its first three years. In particular, in this blog I want to highlight the importance of hope as a catalyst towards more positive futures, but also want to reflect critically on some of the ways in which individualised notions of success can blind us to deep-rooted, persistent structural and inter-sectional inequalities.

Throughout many of my interviews with students who have taken part in Learning Together throughout 2015, 2016 and 2017, students emphasised the important role that courses had played in boosting their confidence. In their reflections, students typically linked feelings of increased confidence with the production of hope for the future. In the words of some prison-based students:

The first positive thing I would say about the whole course is for me […] it brought out a lot of confidence in myself, it brought out a lot of who I am as a person and what I can achieve if I put my heart into it (John, 2016 student).

Carry on working, carry on staying in contact with you guys as I usually do, carry on trying to achieve everything I want, intend to achieve. That’s my plan, to just carry on being positive and carry on fighting, don’t give up […] [Learning Together played a role in my] confidence […] In just making me believe in myself more (Rosca, 2017 student).

There is nothing stopping me. I’ve definitely started to see now visions of what I would like to do (focus group held in prison 2018, with a mixed cohort of students).

Similarly, Cambridge-based students, talked at length about the role that Learning Together had played in increasing confidence. This confidence was often linked to hope through the acquisition of new skills and perspectives to face challenges:

It gives me a continuous stream of confidence in myself that I can really do it even though the situation may be very difficult (Carol, 2016 student).

When we had [LT] sessions, it would boost my confidence. It is kind of knowing that, they saw me as skilled in a way that is true (Jack, 2017 student).

The conception of hope presented across all students’ the narratives is closely related to feelings of individual and personal success. Hope is associated with the capacity to achieve, and to achieve is linked to the importance of effort and hard work – of ‘putting my heart into it’, of ‘carry(ing) on’, of ‘do'(ing). In many of these stories, hope is related to obtaining a higher education degree, a job outside prison and a new life. In other similar stories, hope is described instrumentally, as a way to overcome previous social and education experiences that had previously limited individual transformations. As two students who had progressed to Category D prisons put it:

[Learning Together] definitely shaped the way I see the future. So, if you take me, for example. I feel empowered enough to apply for jobs, to go on to do a Master’s [Degree], to be all that I can be. Like I said before, people in my council state, they think the bar is going to work on a building site. There is nothing wrong with that […] I don’t look down upon jobs like that but what I fear that it does, it’s that glass ceiling. Society has set that bar for you (Marc, 2015 student).

With Learning Together, it looks at some of the potential within someone and finds that hidden skill or a skill that kind of went unnoticed by people. For example, there’s so many guys who live their life with teachers telling them they won’t amount to anything or their behaviour has become more noticed than the skill and rather than focusing on actual skill and helping it to grow, people have just […] focused on punishment (Ahmed, 2016 student).

Another student who was doing the criminology masters course in Cambridge also noted:

The hierarchy is much more visible in the Cambridge academic environment than it is in Learning Together. That’s why I felt I fitted in so well in Learning Together environment […]. At times in Cambridge, because I hadn’t gone to private school, because I hadn’t been an Oxbridge undergrad, certain people would assume they were above me. That’s always been something that I’ve struggled with and get really frustrated by. That there are these hierarchies for no apparent reason. Learning Together kind of completely abolished all of that (Claudia, 2017 student).

Together, these comments shed light on how participating in Learning Together can play a role in promoting social justice. They show how Learning Together enables access to education opportunities within and beyond prisons, allowing people to discover, see and appreciate their talents. In this way, it can work to counteract histories of social and educational exclusion. Within a conception of hope based on individual effort, however, the role of broader social, economic and cultural inequalities can slip out of the picture. This invites us to reflect on the limitations that ‘hope as individual success’ may play in processes of social and collective transformation. Gareth, a student released from prison a year ago, and often quoted by other students as ‘the one who made it’, noted the complexities within the idea of ‘hope’ as merely personal success:

And so, you sort of learn to manage expectations, so then to be told that actually, you do not have to settle for this, that if you put effort in, there are opportunities that sort of […] while I am now sitting in this little pretty café in Cambridge, that feels a million miles away from wherever I expected was possible. So if I had been told that this was possible, and then sort of suddenly not be it would have felt worse than not knowing this was possible. I would have been OK with the status quo. And I think there are a lot of people in prison that would agree with me (Gareth, 2015 student).

While hope can make us mobile and push us to advance into new realities, an emerging wondering, as we begin to make sense of students’ experiences from their interviews, is whether hope can also generate an individual pressure, which can blind us from the structural inequalities that frame processes of desistance and academic success. We have begun to wonder whether a conception of hope, which is linked to individual narratives of success, has the potential to resist, silence and consequently ignore, the intersectional inequalities (of class, gender, migration status, sexual orientation, etc) that people face in their everyday lives.

In interviews, several students noted how Learning Together is playing a role in addressing some of these more structural inequalities, particularly through its focus on community building within and beyond the walls of criminal justice and higher education institutions. While students shared stories of disappointment during the first months after their release, for example, not getting the jobs they hoped for after finishing their studies, many noted how being part of the Learning Together community had enabled them to overcome some of these obstacles. Students described, for example, how the Learning Together team had connected them with job opportunities, supported them to be able to continue their degrees in the face of new institutional constraints, and written references in support of their progression or for new jobs within and beyond the prison and the University of Cambridge.

margaritaYet, while it was clear that this work had made some positive difference, it also seems clear that it is not on its own enough to overcome the structural issues that many Learning Together students have described facing in their daily lives, which transcend the individual to encompass the social, political, economic and geographical. Within narratives of individual hope, a person’s sense of not being able to achieve what he or she had dreamed of – not being able to overcome our own ‘troubles’ – can, perhaps, all too quickly become understood as individual failure. In this light, increasing our understanding of the intricate relationship between the shape of our lives and the structures that frame them, seems as important as promoting processes of individual confidence and hope building.

Our findings, though preliminary, initial and on-going, open-up some interesting research questions about the importance of generating critical hope within learning environments, with conscious, responsible and empathetic attention to context, structures and social realities. Our findings are also a critical reminder of the need to promote inter-institutional and broader connections, within and beyond the Learning Together community, to contribute to collective and social transformation efforts towards the inclusive re-imagining and enactment of positive futures.

Victoria Pereyra-Iraola – Researcher, Learning Together team