Learning Together conference: building communities through collaborative learning

30 Aug 2017

By Morwenna Bennallick

June saw the annual conference for the growing Learning Together community. Like the network itself, the day brought together academics, teachers, prison staff and students, to celebrate success and critically reflect. The conference took place over two days with day one being hosted by the welcoming staff and prisoners of HMP Leicester and day two within the bustling De Montfort University (DMU).

In his opening address, Phil Novis, Governor of HMP Leicester, reminded of the social core of this work: bringing people, expertise, experience and futures together. Discussing the beginnings of their partnership with Ross Little from DMU he said: “We liked each other – that’s always the start of collaboration.” This was a powerful springboard as the collaboration has seen many ways that the two Leicester sites now work together.

Learning Together began in 2014, with students at Cambridge going into HMP Grendon to study criminology, and has since expanded to a network of 20 partnerships. The work unapologetically thrusts prisons out from the shadows of society and into the heart of the community. Maria, a DMU student and an alumna of the partnership with HMP Leicester, reflected on the role that the prison has played in her life. Maria grew up seeing the grandiose structure as the “naughty castle”. After spending time on the other side of the wall, the castle and the people within it became normal. “It became apparent very quickly that we really aren’t that different and it reaffirmed my opinion that I want to work in the Prison Service,” she said.  As Chris, an HMP Leicester student in their cohort stated, Learning Together made him realise that, “you are our future as we are yours”.

The word ‘community’ can mean a lot of things and recognising the dimensions of your community can be a powerful act. As founders Drs Amy Ludlow and Ruth Armstrong said, the Learning Together community is about “challenge, connectedness, conflict and courage”. Through this they remind us that “this work is gritty work - it is not full of platitudes” and that through this work they are developing “a community that is grounded in action”.

Part of this action is challenging our understanding of what learning is. Jenny Fogarty, associate professor at London School of Health and Tropical Medicine, used ‘transformative pedagogy’ to ask educators: “Is your role to focus on learning? Or teaching? And where do the two ideas intersect?”

Day two of the conference responded to these questions by exploring the values and ‘practices of growth’ developed within the partnerships across the country which make up the Learning Together network.

A central value is one of localism and recognising both institutions as part of a local community. Dr Karen Graham from Newman University reflected on her partnership with HMP Birmingham. “Some of our students are closer to the prison than the university – both literally and metaphorically,” she said. For Dr Serena Wright from Royal Holloway University, one of the ‘rewards’ of working with the young people from HMYOI Feltham was the similarities, in age, geographical location and ambition, within the cohort.

This network seeks to explore and challenge the boundaries of learning communities; within prison and beyond. As Andrew Clarke from the Liverpool John Moores University partnership said, these communities are “life changing” and “can be life saving”. Grounded within values of equality, collaboration and promoting growth, these learning spaces are often full of hope and aspiration.

However it is vital that we recognise the immense power and potential fragility of these learning communities. Gareth Evans from Oxford Brookes University who started his Learning Together journey within HMP Grendon, powerfully reflected on the “torture of hope” in his address.

“It feels very dangerous and uncertain to be in a place between being a criminal and being a university student,” he said. “For a lot of my time in prison after LT I had the feeling of not really quite fitting in to either world.”

Gareth forcefully reminded us that the responsibility facing partners in learning communities is significant. “Getting people to a stage when they even commit to the course in the first place is a bestowing of trust on an unfathomable scale.”

As desistance academic Adam Calverley said, “hope is always accompanied by precarity”. This is a central concern for processes of identity shifts associated with desistance from crime. By recognising the role that this can have as people leave prison, we can begin to embed this community outside the prison and the university where the partnership takes place and impact widely on promoting a strong, healthy and positive society.