Learning barriers facing prisoners

Thursday, 22 February 2018

 'Education is the most powerful weapon, which you can use to change the world.' - Nelson Mandela

Today's NEC Blog is written by Wendy Monaghan, who has considerable experience of working with distance learners in many different contexts and is currently at the University of East London. Her MA Leadership in Education dissertation was entitled: ‘Distance Learning Trends in Prisons in England and Wales.’

During his 27 years imprisonment Nelson Mandela studied for a degree via a correspondence course. South Africa’s first black president believed education to be the most powerful weapon available to change the world. Many would agree. But what are the special problems facing those detained in Her Majesty’s prisons who wish to follow Mandela’s example?

Access to education choice: Individuals in prison don’t always know what is available to them and educational opportunities vary from prison to prison, often focused on literacy and numeracy. The options are far more limited than those available within a college or university. Constraints are imposed by the availability of suitably trained teaching staff, the availability of resources, limited and restricted access to those resources, and the prisoner’s length of sentence – will he or she be able to complete all the necessary modules before being moved to another institution or released?

Access to materials: Whilst some distance learning organisations (like the NEC and the OU), provide paper-based materials for prison learners, many don’t offer an alternative, catering for the wider mass online market. This makes studying challenging as there is no access to the internet and less guidance from many providers on what and how to study especially if aiming for exams.

Access to resources: Alongside the paucity of materials is the very limited access to resources to support studying. The most notable is the restricted access to computers, not only for internet research, but for writing up assignments. Library visits may be for just 20 minutes. And whilst the library may stock some reference works and study guides, its main offer will be fiction.

Access to tutors: Whilst learners will have access to a tutor, it is often limited to short phone calls, letters and marked assignments. Phone calls will be brief and only at an allotted time. If the timing does not suit either tutor or learner, then it could be some time before contact can be made. With no access to email in prison, letters and posted marked assignments are the only written feedback and support. These are slow feedback mechanisms and if the written feedback creates further questions, the student must then try to contact the tutor again.

Quiet study: Prisons are noisy environments! There is a constant humdrum of shouting and doors banging, against a backcloth of people moving around all the time. Access to quiet areas to think let alone study are few.

“Most of us, in prison, tend to find really early mornings easier to study. It's the quietest part of the day in prison. It also feels better when you get up early for a purpose. The other really big thing for me was to talk about it. Whatever you are studying, there is something really valuable about trying to have conversations with people on the yard, or between sets at the gym. It helps for you to think about how to explain really complex topics in a really basic way. The better you get at explaining it in lay terms, the more it sinks in.”Gareth, Prisoners’ Education Trust course brochure 2018 (page 26)

Prisoner mobility: Sometimes a learner can be moved at short notice (often hours). Course materials can be left behind and at each prison a new assessment will be undertaken. Sometimes the new prison will not support the type of course that was supported previously, the prison may have a different educational focus or may not have the capacity to support the learner.

Exams: Should a learner complete their studies, they may need to take an exam to gain a qualification. A learner in prison has battled with all other challenges including maintaining their own motivation to get to the exams stage. There is the possibility that they will then be let down by administrative issues experienced within the prison or as a result of syllabus changes. Being a registered exam centre varies from prison to prison and a learner could undertake study and then be unable to take an exam at the end of it all.

“It can be difficult to motivate yourself, but what kept me going was that it would be a waste not to do it. I checked on my initial reasons for wanting to do the course, and I focused on those.”Sadiq, Prisoners’ Education Trust course brochure 2018 (page 42)

These are just some of the challenges that learners in prison face when they decide to enrol on a course – whether this be a short course, vocational, GCSE, A Level or degree.  The good news is that there is lots of work being done through charities such as the Prisoners’ Education Trust to support learning in prison. The Prisoner’s Education Trust is the lead for prison learning and has just published its 2018 prospectus.

The National Extension College supports prison learners to achieve qualifications by making essential adjustments such as providing hard copies of learning materials and sending out additional copies should a learner be moved to a new prison at short notice.

All this support provides opportunities in prison that would otherwise not be an option and supports learners in developing themselves both personally as well as educationally and professionally.

Those who undertake any form of learning whilst in prison deserve congratulation for their perseverance and commitment to overcoming the many barriers.

Those barriers are formidable, but many prisoners over many years have been grateful for the unstinting support available from the National Extension College, without which very many would be denied access to learning.

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