Access education as an empowering lever in prison education


Access education for prisoners

Dr Samantha Broadhead

Currently I am researching the history of access education in the united kingdom from the late 1960s to the current Access to HE Diploma (AHED) which is usually delivered in Further Education (FE) validated by Access Validating Agencies which are recognised by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA).
Some of the significant characteristics of early access education, before it was brought into mainstream education policy in the late 1980s, were that: it was practitioner-led; student-centred; sometimes situated in non-traditional settings like community centres and prisons; it was based on collaboration between consortia of different institutions and sectors; often the educators practiced a politicised and transformational pedagogy.

This work has led me to remember the importance of access education in prison education. During the 1990s I taught on an access course which was situated within a high security prison where its inmates were undertaking long term sentences. I was lucky enough to work with some inspirational educators who were committed to providing high quality education within a context that had particular tensions and constraints. Together we devised an access course which was taught in the prison education department.
The course was basically an arts and humanities curriculum with the addition of mathematics, study skills and advice and guidance. My role was to teach art history and film studies, but I also worked on study skills development. The curriculum also included business studies, the social sciences and philosophy.

There were other courses in the education department that addressed those who needed basic education. However the students on this access course had aspirations to study a degree and most of them had level 2 or above in of literacy and numeracy. The accreditation was ‘in-house’ based on a successful completion of essays and projects.

Although the students had a certain amount of stability, and their education was considered as part of their sentence planning, there was always the possibility that they could be moved onto another prison at any time. This meant that records about achievement were very important and followed the student so they could pick up their learning again in their new establishment.

After students had completed their access course there was not a wide range of options for progression. However, we worked with the Open University (OU) and the students were able to study towards degrees. The OU allocated tutors to the prison to have tutorials with the students; this was an example of collaborative practice between two different institutions. The education department of the prison also provided an open learning room for students working through the Open University resources as well as continuing study skill support.

I remember the impact of the course on one particular student ‘John’. He had experienced mental health and emotional problems which meant he spent a lot time in the prison hospital and appeared to be very introspective. When he was well enough to come to the education department he took part in the access course discussions, based on slides shown on now what would be considered an old-fashioned projector. ‘John’ became very interested in Surrealism writing and produced a very accomplished essay about it. In time he became more outgoing and there were an increasing amount of good humoured moments that he shared with his class mates. There were times when he had to go back to the hospital; however, staff continued to bring him work to do there so he could work on his studies. Through the course he did not seem as isolated; others began to recognise his academic abilities (calling him Prof.) which raised his self-esteem and gave him a purpose and a sense of well-being.

The value of access was that it gave the students purposeful activity whilst they were serving out their sentences. It also enabled some who had not considered educational courses, including higher education, the opportunity to study at a higher level. Achieving the access course was a celebratory event, and students often showed increased levels of confidence and resilience. The content of the course was to develop higher level thinking and study skills which were transferable to other contexts. Transferability was important because students may not know when their situations would change; like moving to a new prison for example. They could also draw on the knowledge and skills they had aquired when they left prison to build lives for themselves and their families.

The course promoted a love of learning for its own sake and reading became an important way to learn. This was we did not have many resources and had to always be mindful of security constraints so we spent a lot time making course materials that were largely text and image based.

Is it important to remember past teaching and learning experiences? I feel that some of the key ideas and values that underpin access education remain important (collaboration, student-centred/transformational pedagogy, recognising achievement and transferability). AHED has adapted in line with current policies and practices however, I believe it still could play an important role in offender education today.