Jon Collins on his first year as PET’s CEO

Home > Jon Collins on his first year as PET’s CEO

26 May 2022

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During a recent online supporter event, Jon Collins reflected on his first year as PET’s CEO. Read on to find out why Jon started working for PET, what we’re doing to ensure we reach everyone in prison, and what he hopes we can achieve in the next five years.

Watch the full event here

What drew you to work at PET?

The first thing that drew me to working at PET was the issue we work on – prison education.

I’ve worked in the criminal justice voluntary sector for over 20 years, and education stood out as something that can make a real difference to people in prison. But too often they’re either not able to access education or what they do access isn’t good enough quality.

But I also really wanted to work for PET specifically. I’ve always admired what PET does and the way it’s respected by everyone, from government ministers to other charities in the sector, and most importantly by learners themselves.

What do you think PET’s biggest achievements have been in the last year?

I think that the most important thing that we do every year is the support we provide to people in prison. Last year, we funded just under 1,500 people to study a course, providing them with opportunities to learn and to use their time productively.

This is a huge amount of work. Every month, we receive around 200 applications from people in prison and they all need to be entered onto our systems and then scored so we can decide whether to fund them. Despite Covid, we’ve continued to do that, ensuring that people get a quick response to their application.

We also provide advice and support to applicants and learners, including through our new Advice Line, which we launched during lockdown.

We launched a new prospectus last year as well with 120 courses that cater to a whole range of different interests.

Using our expertise, we have informed the development of policy around prison education. With the recent Education Select Committee inquiry, we submitted evidence and also worked with the committee to ensure that past prison learners were able to appear before the committee and give their first-hand experience of what prison education was like for them.

Why is PET’s work important for people in prisons?

We know that people who access education are less likely to reoffend and are more likely to get a job.

We offer GCSEs, A-levels and Open University Access modules, along with vocational courses but also courses that aren’t going to move someone directly into a job. We like to give them something that they feel they value, whether it’s creative writing, drawing or a beekeeping course.

When I’ve spoken to people who have done our courses, they have said that it was an opportunity for them to build their confidence and discover a different side of themselves.

What impact is Covid still having on PET’s work?

The pandemic has had a huge impact on the prison system. Prisoners have been in their cells for up to 23 hours a day and in some cases without access to education departments or libraries. We weren’t able to visit prisons so in response we launched our Advice Line to give direct advice to learners.

Although things are starting to get back to normal, there is always a lag in terms of what happens in prisons and therefore the journey to normality will take longer than it will take in the community.

That means fewer people are able to get into education departments and learn about PET’s courses, decreasing the number of applications. Despite this, we have still funded a significant number of courses.

What do you hope PET can achieve in the next five years?

Our new strategy has four key aims.

The first aim is around extending our reach and ensuring that our courses are available to every prisoner in England and Wales.

The second aim focuses on extending the support that we offer. We want to make sure that support is there for prisoners from the moment they apply to our courses.

The third is on digital technology – to enhance the learning experience for people, we also need to increase the availability of laptops and secure access to the internet in prisons.

Our fourth priority focuses on using our expertise to inform policy around the design and delivery of prison education.

Underpinning these aims, we want to keep equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) at the heart of all our work and make sure we work with people who have lived experience of prison education.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and the highlighting of racial inequalities in the UK, what is PET doing to ensure its work is reaching all areas of our society?

We’re building a picture of who our learners are, so we can compare that with the prison population and see where differences emerge. If sections of the population are underrepresented in the services that we offer, we need to address that.

Going beyond service delivery, it’s also about how we work as an organisation and we need to ensure EDI runs through everything that we do. It’s a priority for me, for my colleagues and for PET’s Board of Trustees.

In an ideal world, what changes would you like to see made to prison education?

We need more funding for prison education because the system is underfunded and understaffed. We should think of what further education looks like in the community and how we can replicate that in the prison system.

But amid all the doom and gloom, there are some real pockets of excellence out there. I’ve seen learners in prison perform Shakespeare, write a magazine, get a degree and more. We need to make sure those pockets of excellence become the norm rather than the exception.

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