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Learning Together is a thriving prison education initiative that today involves over 20 prisons with 600 students. Five years ago, it was just an idea. Dr Amy Ludlow and Dr Ruth Armstrong explain how Learning Together is transforming lives of students and staff in prisons and universities and how the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account has helped it to grow and flourish.

When Dr Amy Ludlow from the Institute of Criminology describes how Learning Together has taken flight since she and colleague Dr Ruth Armstrong set it up in 2015, she frequently reaches for avian metaphors. “We often think we’re hanging on to an eagle that’s taking flight,” says Ludlow.

Learning Together, a prison-based education initiative where students from in and outside prison come together to learn, developed from the pair’s work on widening participation. “We had both spent lots of time in prisons doing research,” Ludlow remembers. “I was working on cultural reform through leadership and restructuring, and Ruth focussed on people’s movement away from crime and life post-release.”

Meeting so many “super bright, super talented” people with few educational opportunities made them wonder if they could build a community of learners that could be transformative for everyone involved. “We were interested in reducing the risk of reoffending, but we were equally interested in outcomes for students,” Armstrong says. “We knocked on  a few prison governors’ doors and HMP Grendon said yes.”

What began with one course in a single prison has since grown into a national network involving 600 students in more than 20 prisons and 20 universities. At Cambridge, which has partnerships with HMP Grendon, Whitemoor and Warren Hill, courses range from French film and literature and philosophy and ethics to creative writing and a “big ideas” interdisciplinary seminar series.

Ludlow and Armstrong used two ESRC Impact Acceleration Account grants to grow Learning Together over the past five years. The first IAA funding, in 2016, enabled them to host a two-day conference in Cambridge which attracted 120 prison staff, policy makers, prisoners and academics. It also funded an 18-minute film, made by prisoners at HMP Springhill. Launched by the Secretary of State at HMP Brixton and cleared by the Ministry of Justice for distribution across the prison estate, the film has helped Learning Together reach prisons and universities across the UK and abroad.

“Of all the funding we’ve raised, it’s done more work for us than any other. The film has punched above its weight: we use it at induction events, show it to governors and it stimulates international interest,” says Ludlow. “Because it contains unmediated student voices, the film travels with amazing impact and is an energising catalyst for conversation.”

Then, as Learning Together began to generate international interest, they used a second IAA grant to fund a series of workshops in the USA, Mexico, Uruguay and Argentina in 2017. Using a Spanish-subtitled version of their film, the workshops involved dozens of academics, policy makers and criminal justice professionals in five prisons across four jurisdictions, as well as public lectures and government roundtables.

Back in Cambridge, Learning Together is proving as transformative as they hoped – for students, colleagues and the University itself as well as for Ludlow and Armstrong. The pair have stepped away from permanent academic posts to work on the project full time; colleagues tell them it’s changed their teaching and learning; and Cambridge’s leadership in the field is good for the University’s reputation and gives other universities confidence to get involved.

Most importantly it’s having a positive, measurable impact on students. There is a high retention and progression rate, and it’s breaking down barriers between different groups in prisons. It’s also affecting career choices of Cambridge students, some of whom have decided to go into probation and prison work as a result, and the life chances of prison students, one of whom now works for the University. “We are measuring the difference Learning Together is making,” says Armstrong. “And none of it surprises us because we’ve seen that magic happens in prison classrooms.”

Looking ahead to the next five years of Learning Together, Ludlow and Armstrong have ambitious, long-term plans. They are applying for a third tranche of IAA funding, this time for a collection of poetry and artwork that captures the essence and impact of learning communities. They are also working towards an international piece of comparative research, and ultimately aspire to gain accreditation for a full prison-based University degree.

“Impact is the lifeblood of what we’re doing, We’re serious about research and about making a difference in the real world,” Ludlow concludes. “[The IAA really helps with that.] It’s simple to apply for, as well as being nimble and flexible: it allows one to be surprised. The IAA is a bit like a firecracker – it provides a spark – so that with relatively small amounts of funding, you can do amazing things.”


Vice-Chancellor's Public Engagement with Research Award 2016: "Learning Together" film


ESRC IAA Impact Fund Projects: The Transformative Potential of Learning Together. / Learning Together: Beyond Borders.
Project Investigators:

Dr Amy Ludlow and Dr Ruth Armstrong

(Institute of Criminology)

Partner Organisations: Ministry of Justice, HM Prison Service
Project duration: April 2016 - December 2016 / April 2017 - December 2017


This project was funded by ESRC Impact Acceleration Account 2014-2019 (ES/M500409/1)