Celebrating the PLA

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20 December 2023

Celebrating the work of the Prisoner Learning Alliance 

This month members of the PLA came together to mark the closure of the PLA and to reflect on the impact of the alliance since its foundation in 2012. 

Alexandra Marks, founding Chair of the PLA, shared her recollections of the daunting task of bringing so many organisations and individuals together. 

I recall that at our first meeting there were 17 members, all representatives or individuals involved in prison education working in the voluntary, academic and/or educational sectors – and representatives of statutory agencies. These latter weren’t members of PLA but were prepared to contribute to our discussions. It was a big group to chair, especially as many of the people there had never met each other before. 

Building on this initial meeting, the PLA became the voice of the sector, welcoming both individual and organisational members. 

As the PLA developed, a steering committee was created to shape the structure and focus of the PLA’s work. Maria McNicholl, a steering committee member, spoke of what the PLA has meant to her organisation, St Giles: 

Organisations like St Giles who deliver services and are funded directly by prisons and HMPPS rely on networks like the PLA to campaign and influence policy. Over the years, the PLA created a process by which we have been able to feed information, thoughts, and ideas from frontline prison training into spheres of influence. PLA gave us a voice. And for our prison-based trainers who can often feel isolated, the PLA has provided a forum where they can meet and share ideas and learn from other prison educators. 

Professional or lived experience of prison has always been central to the PLA. From the first meetings, former prisoners or people on ROTL have joined to share their experiences. Until the pandemic, at least one meeting a year was held in a prison to hear directly from current learners and staff. This was reflected in the audience when the then new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove MP, chose to give his first speech in the role on the subject of prison education. As Alexandra recalled:  

His audience included numerous PLA members as well as many former – and vocal! – learners. It was an unforgettable event for everyone present – and showed unmistakably that our message could be amplified and reach the ears of senior policy-makers by using our collaborative approach to produce imaginative proposals for change. 

This work to inform policy has been central to the PLA and has drawn on its members knowledge and expertise. Throughout the PLA’s existence, expert groups have been convened to inform the key reports and guides that the PLA has produced. Alexandra reflected that these reports 

were collectively written, and their recommendations were compelling because they drew not just on the deep and wide expertise of our members, but also the lived experience of men and women with first-hand knowledge of education in prison. 

Conference and awards 

Between 2013 and 2022, the PLA hosted nine conferences. With around 150 attendees each year, the conferences provided an opportunity for everyone involved in the PLA to get together, whether face to face or online, for workshops, talks and networking. Maria highlighted the importance of ensuring these conferences were held in different locations each year. 

These were wonderful conferences and not London centric – they were held in a range of locations including Leicester, Manchester, and Cardiff. Such a variety of speakers and a great opportunity for frontline prison educators to mix, learn, and gain support. 

 Between 2015 and 2019 the conferences included the PLA awards, for prison educators, prison officers, peer mentors, and individuals from other parts of the prison who have made a difference to prison education. The awards were unusual in that all nominations were made by people in prison, and as the awards became more established, the PLA would often receive over 1,000 nominations each year. Always a highlight of the conference, the award nominations were another important way of recognising the unsung heroes of prison education. Maria described her involvement as a judge one year as “one of the most moving experiences of my working life.” 

In 2019, the last year of the awards, particularly moving was the standing ovation for Ishmail, a prisoner released on temporary licence for the day from HMP Kirkham, who won an award for his work as a peer mentor. He also won the overall award for the outstanding educator of the year. Ismail said at the time: 

I thank all those who nominated me. It is an absolute honour to win. I was emotional when I learnt that my fellow prisoners and staff from the Education department wrote such strong and positive comments, expressing their gratitude and praise. I believe it was a team effort, we all deserve the recognition, because without them I wouldn’t have won.”  

The pandemic and digital technology 

When the pandemic hit in 2020, the PLA acted quickly to pull together the in-cell activity hub, a wealth of resources which could be printed and shared under doors. The PLA also began its series of Wednesday webinars (described as a “a weekly lifeline”), and supported the Essential Skills and Inclusion Network hosted by Rachel Oner. These online events provided focal points for prison educators often even more isolated in their establishments.  

The adoption of digital tools has been important to the PLA. The PLA has been a strong advocate of the role digital technology can play in prison education, both as a tool in itself, but also to complement face to face teaching and other types of learning. It is an issue the PLA has regularly raised in consultation responses and other influencing opportunities. 

Since the pandemic, the PLA has continued to monitor and influence the slow, complicated recovery of education in prisons, and the role of digital technology within this. Most recently PLA activity influenced the Education Select Committee’s decision to hold an inquiry into prison education, the first for 15 years. 

Looking ahead 

Tom Schuller, chair of the PLA, shared news of UCL’s new initiative for prison educators, and described the key functions of the PLA he hopes will continue moving forward. 

It is important to continue formulating the priorities of the sector and promote mutual learning and support. Gathering evidence and enabling people across the sector to use this is also critical. And we must continue to improve public understanding of prison education and the criminal justice system more broadly. 

Since the beginning the PLA has been an essential advocate for prison education, amplifying the voices of those who would not otherwise be heard. We close with: 

We are grateful to all those who have given their time and expertise to the PLA. Everyone involved in the PLA has shared its vision to ensure high quality and diverse learning opportunities to help people in prison transform their lives.  

© Prisoner Learning Alliance 2024

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