PUPiL Blog: Learning together beyond the prison gates - opportunities, threats and sustainability

Cultivating a Community of Praxis

Since September 2016 Drs Helena Gosling and Lol Burke have been working in collaboration with User Voice to design a 12-week programme which critically appraises the organisation, operation and ‘effectiveness’ of criminal justice in England and Wales. Although the initiative sits within the Learning Together network, it is a community-based endeavour located within the heart of the School of Law at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU). The aim of the initiative is to cultivate a ‘community of praxis’ occupied by individuals who have been and/or are currently involved with the criminal justice system, academics, practitioners and post-graduate students. The community is built upon a commitment to share knowledge and lived experience through scholarly activity, build resources and local partnerships and, perhaps more importantly, break down some of the barriers which bifurcate the criminal justice system and higher education sector (albeit on a micro level).

The programme encourages participants to critically engage with their own beliefs, opinions, stereotypes and misconceptions, which relate to a series of issues in and around the delivery of ‘justice’ in England and Wales. Each participant is registered and recognised as a LJMU student. They have full access to all university buildings and libraries, a student card, e-mail address and access to the Virtual Learning Environment. Although the programme has an academic framework to follow, we utilise a reactive yet reflective teaching philosophy, that allows teaching and learning to be directed by the ‘here and now’ (what is considered relevant and meaningful to those who are engaged in the learning process at that moment). Within the community of learners, students are able to draw upon personal experiences and life events. However, such contributions are considered to be a gift to those who are in the room. Such gifts are not expected, nor are they constructed as a defining moment of an individual’s character and/or learning experience.

The aim of the initiative is to cultivate a ‘community of praxis’ occupied by individuals who have been and/or are currently involved with the criminal justice system, academics, practitioners and post-graduate students.

In June 2017, two of our Learning Together students represented LJMU at the second national Learning Together conference (hosted by De Montfort University, Leicester). Ian, one of our representatives, said: ‘each participant engaging with Learning Together, lecturers included, embark on a unique journey of discovery; individually breaking the traditional academic mould in ways that are challenging, creative and inspiring. The outcomes are sometimes expected but sometimes surprising, ranging from new ways of thinking and learning, to better-trained professionals, to changes in attitudes  and willingness to change oneself and the world around them. Learning Together breaks the mould, or at least the idea of what that mould should look like. As I said when I was honoured to represent LJMU at the conference, each and every one of you chooses to engage with this journey because of a passionate belief that things could – and should – be done differently.’ Ian continues to work alongside LJMU’s Learning Together, helping to shape its admission procedures and session design and delivery. Since the conference, two Learning Together students have secured a place on the foundation year in criminal justice at LJMU, with a view to study full-time for a BA in Criminal Justice.

Lol and I are currently evaluating the initiative. Although in its infancy, the research is generating a number of interesting findings that can be usefully thought out as opportunities, threats and sustainability. The initiative creates an opportunity for genuine partnership working between agencies in and around the criminal justice system and higher education sector that go beyond the provision of an ‘educational experience.’ This is not to say that this initiative is the first to do so, more an indication of what we have achieved on a local level. Additionally, we have found that our community of praxis provides a safe space for practitioners to discuss work-based issues as well as a ‘new place’ for students and criminal justice service users alike, that is defined and shaped by those who belong to it.

The outcomes are sometimes expected but sometimes surprising, ranging from new ways of thinking and learning, to better-trained professionals, to changes in attitudes  and willingness to change oneself and the world around them.

Raising questions for the future

Reoccurring threats to the initiative are staff burnout and financial support. Learning Together has become a labour of love over the last  year or so. To date, it has been one of the best experiences of my professional career, creating and nurturing an educational opportunity that encourages individuality, academic bravery and boundary testing. But, it has been tough. The aforementioned findings naturally lead into discussions about sustainability.

I don’t claim to have any answers to this, nor am I naïve enough to think that we are the only initiative (within and beyond the Learning Together family) thinking about such issues. The one thing that I do have is questions – and lots of them! So if I may, I would like to ask you whether this is a sustainable endeavour? More fundamentally, I question whether such initiatives legitimise longstanding discriminatory practices in the higher education sector as those who have been involved in the criminal justice system (particularly prison) now have a ‘place’ to go to that sits outside of the conventional university experience?

If you would like to respond to thoughts raised within this blog, or to contribute to the blog yourself, please contact Morwenna