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Learning Together: being, belonging, becoming

Drs Amy Ludlow and Ruth Armstrong


Prison-based education, in the sense of bringing students from outside and within prison together to learn alongside one another, has a long British history. However, its practice in the UK over the last twenty years had declined, while the practice in the US has accelerated, through the Inside-Out programme.

With support from the Teaching and Learning Innovation Fund (TLIF) we have designed and delivered a new educational initiative called Learning Together. The design and delivery of Learning Together has been informed by criminological and educational theory – what we know about stigma, marginalisation and the role of intergroup contact in reducing prejudice, what we know about desistance (how people rebuild non-offending lives), and what we know about how people can be best supported to engage with and develop through learning.

Learning Together has enabled Cambridge graduate criminology students and students at HMP Grendon to learn criminology together over an 8 week programme. Each session is led by a Cambridge academic: from legitimacy with Dr Justice Tankebe to the experience of imprisonment with Dr Ben Crewe to desistance with Professor Sir Tony Bottoms. The students have read journal articles, listened to lectures, participated in small group discussions and written an essay that integrates new theoretical knowledge with personal experiences on the course. All students in our first cohort completed the course and graduated together at HMP Grendon in May 2015.

We have since interviewed our students to explore their experiences of Learning Together. The overarching theme in all of these interviews was how, through connecting with others, the students connected with themselves in new ways. Students also explained how, through connecting with others and connecting with themselves in new ways, new and broader social spaces opened up to them, and they felt like they had a springboard for further engagement. This helped all students to imagine new possible futures.

Colleagues at the Institute of Criminology have described how Learning Together Cambridge students returned from Grendon and engaged more deeply, critically, and meaningfully with other course materials. Learning Together received outstanding praise in MPhil student feedback, being cited as one of the best things about the course. The Governor of HMP Grendon, Jamie Bennett, said:

‘The Learning Together programme was, for me, an opportunity for students at Grendon to learn at a high level in an engaging way. The therapeutic work of Grendon helps to explore and manage some of the profound traumas and problems experienced by the men in our care. Whilst doing this, it is also important to offer opportunities in which men can discover and develop their talents and interests. This course is an example of that.’


The impact on the students was profound. Many talked of how they felt that they had been able to engage with sophisticated academic material, but had also undergone an important social experience, meeting people from very different backgrounds in a context where they felt valued. For the university students this was an opportunity to transcend detached academic learning and instead engage directly with prisons and prisoners.

Learning Together will run again from January 2016 at HMP Grendon. Our work has attracted wide interest from the prison practitioner community as well as from colleagues in other disciplines at this University. We wish to play a leading role in the conversation that is spreading beyond this University about initiatives such as Learning Together. To this end we have organised a roundtable on 10 November in Cambridge to which colleagues from the Universities of Oxford, Durham, York, Kent, Teeside, Lincoln, De Montfort, Leeds, KCL and Westminster have been invited. We have also invited prison practitioners from HMPs Gartree, Wandsworth, Pentonville, Glen Parva, Springhill, Whitemoor, Frankland, Lowdham Grange and Full Sutton. Our hope is to support the creation of new Learning Together partnerships between these universities and prisons and build a community within which the values and practices of education can be explored.

Learning Together has also piqued the interest of colleagues outside of the Institute of Criminology. To deepen this interest, and to engage in a fully interdisciplinary way with the theoretical ideas that Learning Together raises, we have successfully applied for funding from CRASSH to convene a Faculty Research Group for 2015-16 with colleagues from the Faculty of Education (‘The Subversive Good: Disrupting Power and Transcending Inequalities’). The series will culminate in an exhibition (‘Curating and Reimagining Community’) and two workshops (one at CRASSH and one in HMP Grendon), which will explore (inter alia) how Learning Together might be taken forward in new disciplinary and institutional contexts. Ruth Armstrong has been awarded a British Academy post-doctoral fellowship to evaluate Learning Together over the next five years.

Our medium term goal is for Learning Together at HMP Grendon to be taken over by the University of Oxford to enable us to focus our work on prisons that are more local to Cambridge (particularly HMPs Whitemoor and Bedford). This will help to reduce the time and cost of transporting students to the prison, which will assist with Learning Together’s long-term sustainability. We have begun working to secure external funding to ensure Learning Together’s continuation and growth. We have also begun to develop or support allied initiatives, such as ‘Cooking Together’ and ‘Sing Inside’.  Our website is currently under construction and will be launched at the end of September. We are currently writing two articles related to Learning Together, one for the Prison Service Journal, and one for the British Journal of Criminology. We have delivered presentations about Learning Together at HMP Grendon’s ‘Universities Day’, at the 2015 Annual Conferences of the European Society of Criminology and the Prison Education Trust.

A related discussion is beginning to emerge from our Learning Together activities, namely how do we welcome into our university communities people who have criminal convictions? Our experiences of Learning Together underscore the great wealth of talent that exists in many of the people who we imprison: one of our [prisoner] student’s essays is being published in a peer-reviewed journal The Prison Service Journal alongside our article. We are keen to learn more about how university policies and practices can harness this great potential in ways that are inclusive, supportive and safe. Allied to this concern, we have begun conversations with funders about how funding structures might better support people who have criminal convictions and higher education aspiration and potential.


We are enormously grateful for the support of the Teaching and Learning Innovation Fund and we look forward to many future conversations about how Learning Together can help to position the University as a global leader in teaching excellence.


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