Offender Education: Learning Together

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At Careers in Justice, we know that education can have a powerful effect on the lives of those in custody, helping them develop motivation, purpose and self-esteem. We spoke to Jenny Fogarty to fully understand the transformative effect that education can have.

Jenny, an Assistant Professor at the University of London, recently ran a Learning Together course focusing on ‘Education for Social Justice’ which asked university students and prison learners to study together in the prison environment to explore what education should look like in the 21st Century and how it can be used as a tool for social change. She discusses how the course worked, how her students found it and why education is such a crucial platform to challenge thinking and transform lives.

“Education for Social Justice”

My experience supporting learning in prisons has come about following my transition into university work. As a school teacher and leader, I was always committed to ensuring the best opportunities for children in my care and I felt my passion for education was something that carried me through challenging experiences. Little did I know that 5 years after I left the primary classroom, that same passion would take me behind the wire as part of a prison and university partnership through the Learning Together network.

The network, pioneered by Drs Ruth Armstrong and Amy Ludlow from the University of Cambridge, provided me with the opportunity to forge a partnership with a local London prison to devise a co-constructed, university level learning experience under the theme of social justice. The course, Learning Together: Education for Social Justice was developed in line with the principles of Learning Together where we focused on using the process of learning as a connector between two different groups of people to support personal transformation. This course explored how education is used as a tool for social change and the factors that might influence that for example, history, curriculum, theories of learning, technology and assessment.

Every Wednesday, 8 university students travelled to learn alongside 12 students from the prison, inside the prison itself, for a period of 12 weeks. All students were required to prepare reading in advance, contribute to group discussions and tasks and keep a weekly reflective journal. Their final assignment comprised two elements, a group presentation entitled: What should education look like in the 21st Century and the submission of their journal which amounted to an average of 6000 words each. The course culminated in a celebration event where all students invited a friend or family member to the prison to see them complete the course and share and discuss the impact of the course and their experiences.

The course itself was challenging to deliver, particularly for someone like me who was unfamiliar with prison rules, routines and logistical protocols and I was fortunate in this regard to be supported by colleagues in the network and the prison, who helped me to overcome the barriers and create meaningful learning experiences which is reflected in the students’ feedback:

“The learning that took place will definitely take me forward in my career and motherhood. Any pre-conceptions have been written off and I will remember this for a lifetime.”

“I would describe my experience on the course as a brilliant eye opener. I’ve really enjoyed learning again and hope to use this as a platform to further my education.”

“This course has opened my eyes about education and how important it is and how everyone has their own view about what education should be like in the 21st Century. I really enjoyed learning and working with the students and this course has made me want to continue more with my education.”

As a passionate educator, the meaning in my work comes when I can support others to see the value in education and experience personal transformation as a result of learning experiences I can help create. This may read as a bold statement but I firmly believe that by bringing students together in this way, the unique learning experience it creates for them will support their personal transformation and growth which is what drew me to education as a career in the first place. The prison estate is full of people with incredible potential and mechanisms that can sensitively and meaningfully tap into that, have immense value. Indeed, the prison estate is full of individuals and organisations trying to overcome challenges to make this happen.  

Finally, the value of two different institutions with important similarities in their social missions working collaboratively to support transformative learning seems obvious and there has been a long British and international history of such partnerships. Many variations of these partnerships exist and the Prisoners’ Education Trust is providing a platform through its Prison University Partnerships in Learning (PUPiL) network to share experiences and exciting developments between universities, organisations, individuals and prisons. I am looking forward to engaging in, and learning from, my fellow colleagues who champion transformative learning in one of the most challenging learning environments in our society.

Jenny Fogarty is an Assistant Professor in Learning and Teaching at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London. Her 'Learning Together: Education for Social Justice' course ran from October 2016 – January 2017. Read more about the project here.


©Image courtesy of George Baker