Gaining confidence, building trust, learning together
Surrey students and prisoners from HMP Send have reaped the benefits of a pioneering new programme, Learning Together.
In our last issue of Perspective we brought you the news that MSc Criminology students at Surrey were to take part in Learning Together, a collaboration between the University and a closed training prison for women, building on the original programme established by the University of Cambridge in 2015. Following the completion of the pilot scheme earlier this year, this pioneering initiative revealed positive, and sometimes surprising, outcomes for everyone involved.
Over the course of eight weeks, the Learning Together programme saw eight students and five inmates discussing criminology topics together in a new and unique learning environment at HMP Send, a closed training prison for women. Students were looking for real-life interactions that they hadn’t experienced at university before, while the programme would give women at the prison access to a unique educational experience.
Seeing beyond the typical classroom on campus gave the students and prisoners a completely new way to view their learning experience. “Because it was a new initiative, all of our students and the women kept an open mind on what they were looking to get out of it – it was very much an experience in itself,” says Dr Maria Adams, co-founder of the Surrey Learning Together programme and lecturer in Criminology at Surrey. “We felt it was important that the conversations between the students and the inmates revolved around the content of the programme, so there were no preconceived ideas or judgements that could affect the interaction between the two groups.”
The discussions were very rich, very philosophical and very honest. ‘‘
As the weeks progressed, the group built up trust and rapport with one another, developing a different way of learning which neither the students nor the inmates had experienced before. “The discussions were very rich, very philosophical and very honest,” says Dr Daniel McCarthy, who also co-founded the initiative. “Both the students and the women at the prison had the same reading before each week, but they came to the class with very different insights into the same subject matter. That produced a really unique learning environment that you don’t tend to get at university, where lectures are usually directed around particular learning outcomes. Rather than us [academics] giving them information, it was based around the group guiding the debate and shaping the discussion. All the students and the women in the prison gained a sense of recognition, of learning about themselves and gaining confidence.”
“Being able to speak openly to a group of relative strangers in the first week is, in itself, quite important,” Dr McCarthy continues. “After the first week one of the inmates said that participating in the course made her feel ‘normal’ – she felt a sense of relief that she wasn’t going to be judged by the people around her.”
Although the full evaluation of the pilot scheme is yet to be published, the positive effects on both the students and prisoners were evident from the outset. “The level of intellectual reward that the students got from the programme this year was unprecedented,” says Dr McCarthy. “They got an awareness of working with groups that they wouldn’t otherwise come into contact with, and the realisation that the women in the prison aren’t altogether different to them. There’s no hiding place in a classroom like that – when you’re talking about issues of opinion, everyone is quite emotionally vulnerable, which can only lead to people feeling more engaged. It’s very hard to achieve this rich learning environment at university.”
There's no hiding place in a classroom like that - when you're talking about issues of opinion, everyone is quite emotionally vulnerable. ‘‘
“One of the key things that stood out was how well both the MSc students and the women in the prison worked together,” adds Dr Adams. “The transition of them getting to know each other and learning in a very alternative space happened very fast and was really effective.”
After such a successful trial, Dr Adams and Dr McCarthy hope to continue running the Learning Together programme on the MSc Criminology course and have ambitions to extend it to other courses at Surrey. “You can use the underpinning concept of learning together in different environments in a range of subjects,” explains Dr Adams, “which will help to build a sense of community that extends far beyond the university campus.”
With outcomes so overwhelmingly positive, could delivering the Learning Together experience to the prison community have broader-reaching effects in the long term? “We wouldn’t ever say that this programme is ever going to reduce reoffending because it’s too big a jump,” says Dr McCarthy, “but what we do know is that the things that improve the prospects of resettlement after prison – building confidence, a sense of empowerment – are the things that we believe the programme can support. They’re micro-steps but we like to think we’re contributing some small part to positive futures for all involved in the programme.”