Expert Opinion

Learning Together in prison: An innovative approach to education through inclusivity

This month, prisoners at HMP Full Sutton enrolled as students at Leeds Beckett University and are taking part in a new degree-level programme within the prison, alongside Leeds Beckett Criminology students. In this blog post, Shaun Williamson, Head of Reducing Reoffending at HMP Full Sutton, explains why this is such an important development for prison education.

The exterior of HMP Full Sutton

Over the past few years, the delivery of education within prison establishments has been focused towards the development of basic skills, providing members of the prison community with a foundation which can improve the prospects of employment and future progress on release.

This approach should not be dismissed in its entirety, as a basic foundation in education may be beneficial for lots of prisoners who are serving short sentences and is crucial for those returning into society. However, limiting progress to low level qualifications stifles opportunities for those serving long prison sentences, many who, once bitten by a bug for learning, wish to progress as far as they can.

Until recently, most prisons have been limited, through rigid funding mechanisms, to delivering qualifications up to level 2. This provides what could be described as a ‘glass ceiling’ for those who wish to develop further, and stifles the availability of stimulating, interesting and enjoyable learning activities. I acknowledge that there is access to higher level qualifications through distance learning, along with external funding mechanisms, however these opportunities are not available to all, have some restrictions due to a ‘digitally disabled’ environment, and are quite often a jump too far.

A computer room in HMP Full Sutton

I am a firm believer that prisoners who are serving long sentences should have access to a wide range of activities which assist in stimulating thought and providing opportunity to grow and progress. Education is an extremely important conduit in which to assist with this, generating creativity, hope and inspiring a whole range of potential opportunities. It provides real potential for rehabilitation whether this is during transition back into the wider community or supporting a custodial journey, creating a sense of being and self-worth played out through positive achievements.

During my own recent studies at the University of Cambridge, and whilst supporting Dr Helen Nichols through her own PhD studies, I was made aware of and introduced to the ‘Learning Together’ initiative which was being developed by Cambridge. I saw this as both an innovative and inclusive way in bridging the gap between the limited delivery in place within prison and access to a higher, more stimulating curriculum.

The ‘Learning Together’ approach provided me with an opportunity to work in partnership with Helen Nichols and Bill Davies to create a transformational learning experience which will provide benefits for all students engaged within the course. The framework to the programme will, for Leeds Beckett students, bring to life criminological theory, whereas for the internal students, there is a real prospect of making learning real, creating the chance for positive use of labeling with potential for those prisoners engaging with the module to be seen as university students and future graduates of Leeds Beckett University, rather than being known by, or for their offence.

Dr Helen Nichols and Dr Bill Davies

Bringing the two groups of students together within the same space will provide a supportive learning environment, which will allow the internal group to connect with the community through an inclusive and collaborative approach, facilitating a more humanized experience. The programme providing mutual benefits from studying as an inclusive group of peers advancing a dialogic method.

If we are to succeed in achieving these central principles, then it is essential that all participants are treated equally, using the same methodology for recruitment and selection, delivery, and learning environment. All of the students were able to apply for the module regardless of previous academic attainment. With a desire to make the learning truly inclusive, the only requirement being a desire to evidence a level of hard work and commitment. This inclusive approach includes the need for Leeds Beckett students to adapt their learning style slightly and adopt the same level of restrictions around the use of IT and other digital resources based on restrictions prevalent within the prison community. Constraints around the use of email, and access to electronic media will be adopted, with all learning materials accessible via printed media. This will prevent iniquity across the peer group, instilling a real sense of egalitarianism.

I am excited for the future, and hope that the module will prove to be successful, meeting all of the aims outlined above. My vision for the future includes access to a wider cohort of students with a curriculum which extends across the different schools at Leeds Beckett University.


- Shaun Williamson, MSt (Cantab), BA (Hons), Head of Reducing Reoffending, HMP Full Sutton