Roundtable Discussion on the In-Cell Curriculum

Home > Roundtable Discussion on the In-Cell Curriculum

10 March 2021

In cell learning 3 scaled

With face-to-face education on hold, or extremely limited in most prisons across England and Wales, in-cell education is likely to be the reality for the coming months.

In December 2020, PLA members generously gave their time and shared their experiences of in-cell learning during COVID-19. We are grateful to everyone who joined us and contributed to this roundtable discussion.


Her Majesty’s Prions and Probation Service (HMPPS) has indicated that they expect in-cell learning to be a key part of education delivery, even after lockdown. The PLA’s work on developing or changing the prison education curriculum must, therefore, include a focus on what is possible in cells. This discussion aimed to address how we can make in-cell learning as effective as possible.


The questions we asked were:

  • What are the challenges in providing a full curriculum through in-cell study?
  • How can education providers, prison staff and other organisations work together to ensure the widest possible subject offer, including creative and self-development opportunities?
  • How can learners be supported to engage in in-cell learning and how can we ensure progression?


Obstacles to Effective In-Cell Learning

Some of the obstacles identified by the group were specific to in-cell learning, while some were more general. In some cases, these obstacles have been exacerbated by the lockdown. These obstacles include:

  • Lack of suitable self-study material curated to meet the needs and interests of individual prisoners
  • Lack of access to technology which severely restricts the range and effectiveness of in-cell learning, and ability to complete exams or submit assignments which require computer access
  • Lack of one-to-one support from or communication with tutors
  • Limited incentives – education is not remunerated as well as work within prisons
  • Prison life – particularly during lockdown – already contains many obstacles; problems receiving paper correspondence for distance learning, such as courses with the National Extension College and Open University, is another barrier. Often, people feel more inclined to focus on staying in touch with family, and worries about family can distract from studying.


What would effective in-cell education look like?

Access to Digital Technology

During the COVID-19 pandemic, prisons have used Purple Visits and in-cell telephony effectively to help maintain family contact.

In-cell technology would allow people to study and take exams, to continue with open and distance learning courses, and submit work to and receive feedback from teachers. Outside of lockdown, in-cell technology would make distance learning courses more accessible and reduce the barriers of having to correspond by post.

Education on digital literacy has not been possible for most prisoners during lockdown, as computers are usually located in communal areas. However, it is vital for those soon to be released to understand the digital economy and its dangers, such as how to use the internet safely and avoid scams.


Resources for Every Level of Learner

The needs of different level learners are as varied during lockdown as they were before COVID-19. Higher-level learners are more confident working independently, without face-to-face support or structured lessons, but they need the means to submit assignments and receive feedback. On lower level courses, more tutor support is required by learners.

Education staff should have access to telephones to speak with each individual learner, at every level.

In-cell multimedia, such as prison radio, WayOutTV and Way2Learn could be used much more widely during the lockdown as a precursor and gateway into education for those who are intimidated by the classroom. However, this should not be seen as a substitute for face-to-face contact.


A Blended Learning Approach

Digital technology is not a solution to fix every issue with the current prison education system, but neither are paper worksheets. Education should be delivered through blended learning (a combination of face-to-face and digital learning) and a mix of interactive teaching and of educational materials. These sessions could be delivered through TV or tablets, in-cell tutorials and when possible socially-distanced group classes.


Improved Awareness of Educational Offering

Prisoners need to be informed about the range of educational opportunities available to them, both during and after lockdown.

With in-cell technology, prisoners could receive personalised letters/Email a Prisoner messages from education staff about their learning. They could also, then, gain the opportunity to attend support sessions delivered in-cell, such as a one-to-one drop-in session or phone advice to learn about different courses and what each entails.


Diverse Curriculum and Educational Materials

A wide range of materials should be designed specifically for use in cells, including prompts and techniques to support learners without an in-person teacher or educator. This could particularly present an opportunity to engage with learners who may have negative associations with a classroom environment, or who are deterred from engaging in education because of preconceived possible stigma.

Both in-cell and out of cell, curriculum content should be more diverse, it must be decolonized, and it must engage a wider audience. It is essential that these features are consistently embedded throughout materials, rather than scattered or on a one-off basis, for individuals to connect with the content being delivered.


Engagement with Staff on the Ground

Tutors and front-line staff – and during the lockdown, often officers – are creating materials and engaging with learners individually. They should, therefore, receive adequate training and guidance to be able to provide this in-cell support as effectively as possible. It is necessary that staff members to share the conviction that education is important – even more so during COVID-19, when prisoners are locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day.


Looking Forward

We discussed the work of prisons across England and Wales who have started to implement an innovative approach to in-cell education. Some prisons:

  • have equalised pay for individuals engaging in work and those in education
  • are promoting the importance of education during and beyond COVID-19
  • are using diverse and thoughtfully curated educational self-study materials, with effective one-to-one tutor conversations to support study skills and progress
  • have ensured ready access to laptops or tablets, and utilise in-cell telephony and tv to offer access to education
  • have secured strong partnerships with external institutions, such as universities and art galleries, to enrich and extend in-cell learning
  • offer access to a wide range of creative resources, including library books, resources, art materials, available to prisoners to engage with in cells
  • encourage peer-to-peer learning where possible
  • focus on educational progression and pathways to employment as integral to in-cell learning.


We look forward to future roundtables exploring the prison education curriculum, and to using the sessions to inform change.


Many thanks to the roundtable discussion participants.

Chair: Toni Fazaeli, chair of the PLA’s working group on the curriculum.

Participants: Simon Bland, HMP Leicester; Sharon Clarke – Art teacher at HMP Stafford; Marc Conway – Policy Officer at Prison Reform Trust; Francesca Cooney – Head of Policy at Prisoners’ Education Trust; Sarah Hartley – Operational Lead for Creative Arts and Enrichment, Novus; Kerry Howbridge – Learning and Skills Manager at HMP Lindholme; Femi Laryea-Adekimi – Trainee at Prison Reform Trust; Barbara McDonough -Independent Education Consultant; Ros Morpeth – Chief Exec, National Extension College; Tom Schuller – Academic and Chair of the PLA; David Tilley – Education Manager at HMP Lindholme; Jezz Wright – Founder of WayOut TV; Helena Wysocki – Networks Officer at Prisoners’ Education Trust.

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