Releasing a better version of me: the power of education to change all our lives

Face to face      
            Credit: Kip Loades
Face to face Credit: Kip Loades
A pioneering project to teach university students alongside prisoners, so that they learn from each other, has proved remarkably successful. The creators of Learning Together, Drs Ruth Armstrong and Amy Ludlow, are now expanding the scheme and seeking to widen participation.

They are not studying us; they are studying with us.
Adam (a prisoner talking about the Learning Together course)

The letter is dated 18 November 2016: John is writing to Jakub. HIs message begins in capitals: ‘YES, JAKUB’ and goes on to congratulate Jakub on the latest developments in his career.  He writes: ‘I now consider myself , who is so proud of you.’ John’s words are handwritten in biro on lined paper: the notepaper of Her Majesty’s Prison Service.

The writer and recipient of this letter could hardly be more different. A former addict, John is serving a lengthy sentence at HM Prison Grendon in Buckinghamshire. Thousands of miles away, Jakub is starting a PhD in criminology in the Czech Republic while working for the Constitutional Court in Prague. With a Masters in criminology from Cambridge University, his future looks bright.

Jakub and John are just two of the many people who have been brought together by an ambitious scheme run by academics at Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology. Taught in prisons, Learning Together gives university students and prisoners the chance to study alongside each other. They sit in the same classrooms, engage with the same topics, and carry out the same assignments.

Learning Together was piloted at HMP Grendon in 2015. An-eight week criminology course was taken by 24 learners, half of them graduate students and half of them prisoners. The programme is now expanding to other prisons and subject areas. Its remarkable success stems from the passionate belief of its creators - criminologists Drs Ruth Armstrong and Amy Ludlow - in the power of education to boost confidence, unlock potential and transform society for the better.

This term, prisoners at Grendon have the opportunity to sign up for a course in literary criticism led by Dr Stacey McDowell from Cambridge’s Faculty of English. Meanwhile, prisoners at HM Prison Whitemoor in Cambridgeshire are offered a course on ‘The Good Life and the Good Society’ run by Drs Ryan Williams (Centre of Islamic Studies) and Elizabeth Phillips (Divinity Faculty).

Religious, political and social differences are high on the public agenda. Yet theological and religious education is often taught in a way that’s disconnected from the real world. Williams suggests that this gap between theoretic and real-life perspectives represents a valuable opportunity. ‘While carrying out my research, I observed that people are guided on a daily basis by ethical and theological questions of what constitutes the ’good’,’ he says.

‘Our course finds a middle ground, and provides a chance for students to sharpen their own understanding of what is right and ’good? in their own life and in society by having meaningful contact with, and learning alongside, people from a diversity of backgrounds. Yes, we’re taking a risk in that we’re exploring questions of difference often seen as sources of conflict, but we believe it‘s a crucial one to take.’

Universities and prisons might seem poles apart but both communities set out to transform lives for the benefit of society. ‘While teaching on access-to-university courses, aimed at students from less advantaged backgrounds, we realised that the students we were meeting had a lot in common with the prisoners we’d encountered in the course of our research,’ say Armstrong and Ludlow.

‘Many came from similar backgrounds and had been brought up on similar streets. The access students tended to have punitive views of people who commit crime - while many prisoners thought they had nothing in common with ’clever? people who were destined for university. We saw the same potential brimming in many of them.’

Teaching in prisons is nothing new. Uniquely, however, Learning Together sets out to create enduring ‘communities of learning’ in which students from universities and prisons realise how much they have to learn from, and with, each other. As a prison-based Learning Together student called Adam explains in an article about his experiences of the course: ‘They are not studying us; they are studying with us.’ 

The shared endeavour of structured learning forges friendships and shatters stereotypes. Adam writes: ‘I had my fears about the course. Will I be judged’ Will I be up to it socially? Can I really learn with Cambridge students without looking stupid?- Since completing the course Adam has won a scholarship that will enable him to take a Master’s in English Literature. He has also trained as a mentor of Learning Together students.

Many prisoners have negative experiences of school and gain few formal qualifications. For their part, many university students have relatively narrow life experiences. ‘Going into a prison, I expected to find immaturity,’ said one Cambridge student in a film made by prisoners at HMP Springhill, another prison involved in the project. ‘Instead, I discovered that I was the immature one.’

At the heart of Learning Together is an approach described by Armstrong and Ludlow as ‘dialogical learning’ - learning through dialogue with fellow students and teachers in an environment of trust. In a blog for the magazine Travellers Times, a prisoner at Grendon called Anthony shares his thoughts about the liberating nature of this approach.

Anthony writes: ’Every session... gave me the feeling that I had been free for a few hours, although not free in the sense that I had been outside the prison, but free in a deeper sense. I could be a better version of myself, which my incarceration, past and fears did not dictate to and smother. It was warmth, compassion and the exchange of ideas - alongside the acceptance of others - that created this released version of me.’

If you are interested in learning more about how your university or department could get involved in working in partnership with a local prison, please contact Ruth Armstrong and Amy Ludlow on justis [at] (p) uk