Every prisoner a learner, every prison a place to learn

24th October 2018

We are delighted to have funded the Prisoners’ Education Trust, a charity working across 125 prisons in England and Wales to help people in prison to achieve their potential through learning. The charity offers access to distance learning, arts, hobby materials, advice, and guidance to prisoners across the country in order to enhance their chances of building a better life after release. 

Anthony Knight, Fundraising Officer for the Trust, shares why there is a need for this kind of support to not only benefit the lives of prisoners, but the wider community also.

Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) supports prisoners to engage in rehabilitation through learning. We do this by providing access to a broad range of distance learning opportunities and related advice and mentoring services through our Access to Learning programme. This provision is proven by the Ministry of Justice to reduce re-offending and increase the chances of employability upon release. We focus on those whose needs are not served by the basic literacy and numeracy courses provided by the prison estate and who desperately want to progress.

Since PET’s establishment in 1989, we have supported over 37,000 prisoners through our Access to Learning programme, with a vision that every prisoner should have the opportunity to benefit from education. This vision is underpinned by our belief that education has the power to enrich, change and develop people throughout their lives. Offering prisoners access to education improves their self-esteem and enables them to choose a more constructive way of life – making it less likely that they will re-offend and more likely to find employment after serving their sentence.

The annual inspectorate report published last year shows purposeful activity provided by the prison estate, which includes work, training and education, had the worst outcomes in 10 years. The report found that significant reductions in staffing meant that too many prisoners were spending too long locked in their cells (sometimes as much as 23 hours a day) with no positive focus, as well as finding increases in assaults, self-harm and suicides.

The current prison population stands at over 85,000 (double what it was 20 years ago), and prisons have almost reached capacity. At a time when there is urgent need for education to be given a higher priority. PET is the only organisation working at a national level to provide students with distance learning guidance and recognised distance learning courses in subjects and higher levels not available in prison. As such, 2017 was a particularly challenging year for PET; we experienced record levels of demand and some months received almost 400 requests for support. Throughout the year we were able to help 3,006 individuals with our education programme (363 more than the previous year), but sadly we are now having to turn away around a third of individuals who want to change their lives through education.

Prisons in England and Wales are increasingly overcrowded and understaffed, with alarming levels of violence and self-harm. But education can make prisons safer places by creating a positive, learning culture and offering hope and purpose. We often receive applications from new students who have been positively influenced their cellmates into taking part in education. Ultimately, education lowers the re-offending rates.

An example of a prisoner supported by the Community Foundation last year, highlighting the amazing effect this grant had:

A grant enabled Cheryl* to undertake a Mental Health & Psychiatry Certificate. This qualification is aimed at learners looking to raise their awareness of mental health. Cheryl is eager to learn new skills, make the most of her time in prison and work towards a more positive future. In her application to PET, she explained her reasons for wanting to study this particular course:

“I have recently completed Mental Health Awareness QCF Level 2. I found the subject matters fascinating and I am eager to learn as much as possible. Two of the topics hit me personally, as one of my close friends was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and Bulimia whilst in prison. I have seen the effects both disorders can have on someone and the difficulties she had to go through.

On a personal level, being in prison has opened my eyes to the mental health sector and encourages me to gain better knowledge and more of an insight of the different people in the world and how I might be able to help them.

My long-term objective is to gain a degree through the Open University when I am eligible to apply and work within the mental health sector, preferably with people with Bipolar upon leaving prison.

I am a highly motivated person and always put every effort to complete all my courses to the highest possible standard. Whilst I have been in prison I have completed 3 NVQs, 1 OCR Level 3 in IT and % OCR’s Level 2 in IT, and I am about to start NVQ Level 3 in Advice and Guidance.”

PET is facing increasing demand for our distance learning and advice provision. All funds raised are essential to make sure we can support as many people in prison as possible access the learning opportunities we provide. With the challenges the prison estate is currently facing, anything that can help prisoners move towards their career goals and personal aspirations provides hope and makes a real and long-term difference. Support for project costs such as that provided by the Community Foundation for Surrey ensures that prisoners from Surrey can be supported, whilst unrestricted donations enable us to respond to those individuals who otherwise might fall through the gaps.

The Foundations support has enabled PET to address the learning needs of multiple prisoners returning to communities across Surrey and has been vital during a period of significant development at PET, and a change in the prison education system as a whole. All of PET’s work is so important to men and women in prison, ready for a chance to change and grow through education.

*Name has been changed

The Community Foundation for Surrey is a philanthropic charity inspiring local giving for local need. The grants we make to groups in Surrey such as PET are made entirely possible by the giving of individuals, businesses and trusts whom we work closely with to help direct their giving to causes they are passionate about.