35 years of helping learners make a fresh start

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Jon Collins, Chief Executive | 25 April 2024

Prisoners’ Education Trust is 35 years old this month, having been founded in April 1989.

It’s hard to believe it’s already five years since our 30th birthday celebrations, which took place in what feels like a different, pre-Covid world. But as we pass another milestone birthday, it is worth reflecting on what we have achieved since we were set up by our founders, prison teacher David Burton and barrister Vernon Cocking, and what’s changed in the last five years.

Our history

The original idea that underpinned PET’s creation 35 years ago was that prison education was too narrow, that there were insufficient opportunities for people in prison to progress and pursue their educational interests, and that distance learning was a way to fill that gap. Sound familiar?

That is what PET was set up to do and, to a significant degree, it is what we still do now. We continue to provide, as our founders envisaged, a wide range of distance learning courses that would otherwise be unavailable to people in prison.

Twenty years ago, a learner said:

I wish to extend my sincere gratitude to the Trust. For me, you act as a beacon, a light shining through the darkness and a hand, helping to guide me to my feet again.

And the feedback we receive today is remarkably similar, with one learner saying last year:

Prisoners’ Education Trust is a shining light in the darkness that is prison. Thank you all for enabling me to do something with my time, which has helped to restore my self-esteem.

That is not to say that we have stood still at any point in the last 35 years. When we were established in 1989, we only worked in HMP Wandsworth. By 2003, we were offering access to distance learning in every prison in England and Wales. Last year we funded 1,340 courses, covering everything from bookkeeping to beekeeping.

Overall we have now given nearly 48,000 educational awards to people in prison, providing opportunities that they would otherwise have had no way to access.

The last five years

Over the last five years, we have continued to innovate and develop what we offer to people in prison.

Four years ago – in April 2020 – we launched a new Advice Line for people in prison, enabling them to contact us directly for advice and support. Since then, we have taken more than 5,500 calls from nearly 1,600 different people.

This has – we hope – provided a useful resource for people in prison. But it has also helped us to get to know our learners better, and to better understand the challenges and barriers that they face.

Building on this, we have launched a major new project to develop the support that we can provide to our learners. Funded by The National Lottery Community Fund (TNLCF), this project will enable us to ensure that anyone who begins a course funded by PET gets the help they need to complete it. It will also help us to make sure that we reach the diverse communities that make up the prison population.

PET’s alumni have been at the heart of this project from the outset, the latest strand of our work to put our learners at the centre of all that we do. We now employ Lived Experience Consultants to help deliver the project, building on the work that our Alumni Advisory Group did to help us to develop it.

Looking to the future

Much of this work – and much more besides – has been guided by our organisational strategy, which covers the five years from 2022 to 2026. As we approach the halfway mark of that five-year period, I think that we have made good progress in implementing it.

But there is still a lot to do! This includes building on the real progress we’ve made in recent years to make better use of digital technology, continuing to influence and inform prison education policy at a crucial time in its development, and ensuring that our learners and our alumni are always central to all that we do.

Beyond that, next year we’ll start thinking about the next strategy, the next five years and into the 2030s. At a time when the prison system is under unprecedented pressure, PET is very much here for the long haul. And as part of this, we will of course continue to support people in prison to access distance learning and make fresh starts. That is what we were founded to do 35 years ago, and it remains at the heart of our current work and future plans.

And finally…

None of this would be possible without PET’s brilliant staff team and all the people who have worked here over the last three and half decades.

We have three staff – Cassie, Hannah and John – who have been at PET for 10 years or more and one staff member – Suzan – who celebrated her twentieth anniversary at PET last year.

John alone has taken nearly 1,000 calls on the Advice Line in the last four years. Meanwhile Suzan has signed off thousands of courses for people in prison in the last 20 years, paid for over the years by the funds raised by Cassie and Hannah.

But whether they’ve been at PET for two decades or two months (welcome, Chloe and Carthika!) all my colleagues are making a real contribution to what PET does and what PET is. And I’d like to take this chance to thank them for all their commitment and hard work.

© Prisoners' Education Trust 2024

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