On 13th November, @EPALE_UK posed the question on Twitter: “Which one teaching strategy is the most useful in working with learners in offender learning?” The tweet linked to EPALE UK's Prison Education Week focus discussion.
In my role as Director of Safe Ground, I responded:
“To consider each person as a person, with needs, interests, passions and boredom thresholds and to remember at all times there’s no single strategy that can work with everyone. So teaching is the art of engagement- people answering their own questions. Ideally in groups. With art.”
In this blog, I will expand my thinking and share some of the insights, experience and expertise Safe Ground colleagues (and many others working in arts in custodial and community settings) bring to the wider field of education. Some of the issues pertaining to this debate, from our point of view include:
- Why we don’t exclude anyone from a classroom.
- Why we always use dialogue, debate and discussion as part of our art process.
- How we understand and deliver therapeutic practice and group dynamics to our arts-based group work.
- How we work with people unlikely to engage with other education in either a secure or a voluntary setting.
“I ain’t doing that”…
Safe Ground is not unique in working with people for whom formal education processes have often failed. Of the prison population in the UK, as many of you will be aware, “over half (54%) of people entering prison were assessed as having literacy skills expected of an 11 year old—over three times higher than in the general adult population (15%).” (Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile) Education and access to high quality education and personal development opportunities for people in prison have long been recognised as valuable and significant “Engagement with education can significantly reduce reoffending. The proven one year re-offending rate is 34% for prisoner learners compared to 43% for people who don’t engage in any form of learning activity” (ibid).
The recent Coates review describes education as a key to supporting people’s learning, development and contributions to wider society. For Safe Ground, education involves and includes arts practice and group therapeutic processes and is not simply or merely a tool for reducing reoffending or building safer communities; it is a vital part of community life, a social necessity and a building of bonds in which trust, risk taking, identity and security can all be rehearsed and enjoyed.
Safe Ground designs and delivers complex group work for men, women, young people and staff in a range of settings including prisons and forensic mental health units. We are not unique in this either. We have many colleagues and allies doing similar work across the UK and we are proud to share an approach with some of them.
What is possibly unique to Safe Ground’s work is a belief in the combination of therapeutic approaches, large group work and sophisticated attention to content and material that make up our programmes.
Participants on our programmes often range from having severe and specific learning disabilities, to being privately educated; having a close and supportive family to having no fixed abode and no family contact; from having experience of drama and performing arts to never having spoken in a group exercise or left a cell to engage in education before.
Safe Ground staff often have no idea who they will be working with, certainly not what crimes people have committed, what their motivations for joining the group are or how the group will collaborate.
We have to work it all out in the ‘here and now’ and deliver a process that culminates in a public performance, sometimes in a 4 week period, sometimes within 3 days.
We do that by ensuring our attention is as much on the group as it is on the curriculum:
- What is happening between and amongst participants?
- What language is being used?
- What are the metaphors arising in the stories being told?
- What clues can we find to individual and group sense and meaning when we listen to what is not being said as well as all that is?
Safe Ground staff are all highly trained, creative and committed people, working towards a way of being in the world in which prison and punishment are not first principles. In order to do that, we all have to share the ethos of anti-punishment in our approach and find ways to include, stick with and stand by the often angry, disturbing and disturbed manifestations of people’s experience in order to make sense of it. What does someone mean when they express hatred, rage, self-loathing or harm? How do we work with that and can we, rather than push it away, send it out, banish it and hide it from ourselves?
Being invited to stay
Safe Ground is one of very many organisations working extremely hard in extreme conditions to make sense out of some terrible situations. People in prison have often committed horrific crimes of violence against others. It is also true that people in prison are often the victims of horrific crimes and bring a great deal of compassion, creativity, collaboration and care into a room that offers a space to work out difficult stuff free from judgement, being ‘right or wrong’ and being asked to leave. Being invited to stay is sometimes the harder option.
 Summer 2018 p. 15
 Unlocking Potential A review of education in prison Dame Sally Coates May 2016
Safe Ground challenges people and communities to do relationships differently.
Through drama, dialogue, and debate, we enhance empathy and encourage expression, developing self-awareness and promoting social justice. We are a small team with national reach and influence. We are absolutely committed to:
- Reducing the stigma faced by families of people in prison
- Improving access and diversity of educational activities in prisons
Creating alternatives to traditional punishment and exclusion, proven to be so ineffective.
Charlie has led the team at Safe Ground to expand the organisation’s work in both prison and community settings, creating new arts-based relationships programmes and developing discreet arts projects and opportunities for people in and out of prison to participate in meaningful policy and practice events.
Charlie began her career as a youth worker in Leicester City in 1993 and has worked in the voluntary sector, with young people and families in situations of crisis, ever since. Charlie is committed to challenging power dynamics and working with groups and individuals to develop alternatives to punishment through agency, accountability and reflective practice.
You may also be interested in:
Prison Education Week (collection of blogs and resources)
Students with Conviction (blog)