Learning Together: building a community of learners within and beyond prison bars

Author: Rachel Vipond,
Department of Social Policy and Social Work, University of York


Social Policy, Crime and Criminal Justice is a module which brings together students from the University of York and HMP Buckley Hall to engage in a shared learning experience which takes place on the prison site. The module provides students who are both ‘inside’ (those in custody) and ‘outside’ (those in university) with a unique experience that involves high levels of reflection not only on the course materials but on the process and meaning of learning. The distinctive element of the module is its ability to break down barriers created by social division giving all students involved an insight into the lived experience of their peers. This workshops aims to introduce others to the experience of creating a learning community within and beyond prison bars.


Chair: Ian Gray

In this session, Rachel and Lindsay shared their experiences running a unique third year undergraduate module. Inspired by similar programmes in the United States, the Social Policy and Social Work department has partnered with HMP Buckley Hall, a Category C men’s prison in the Buckley district of Rochdale in North West England. The module, Social Policy, Crime, and Criminal Justice, provides shared learning for both University students and prison-based learners. The undergraduate students are completing the module as a part of their degree, whilst the prison-based learners are also receiving recognition through an official certification of completion from the University.

The module takes place at the prison site and comprises six two-hour workshops, each which have pre-reading, and a short 20 minute introductory lecture. Students also attend an introductory session that explores their learning aspirations and expectations, covers issues of security and boundaries, and a feedback session a third of the way through the course. A large emphasis is placed on the sharing of life experiences, and on critical self-reflection. The lecturer is assisted by a professional facilitator, also from the University, who conducts exercises to facilitate relationship building.

Clearly with such a module there are a range of safeguarding issues that had to be considered, and so the teaching team had to work hard with the University to ensure all ethical considerations were covered. However, Rachel commented that whilst the process was more lengthy than for other modules, in general the University was very supportive.

Throughout the room was evidence of the evaluation of the module. Learners answered a range of surveys and wrote about their thoughts and experiences of the module, and from perusing these the main thing that stood out was how personal everyone’s experience had been. It was clear that the participants had enjoyed a unique learning experience. Many of the prison learners spoke of how they had believed Higher Education to be beyond them, inaccessible, yet this module has shown them otherwise. Some were also hoping to pursue more learning after release. Meanwhile, the University learners had the opportunity to benefit from first-hand life experiences that they would otherwise have not, whilst give them unique insight into the topics covered throughout the rest of their degree.

Rachel Vipond and Linsday Coomer talk through the module. Artwork from one of the prison learners is shown on the projector in the background.
Rachel Vipond and Linsday Coomer presenting the workshop

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