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The future for prison and university partnerships
The importance of continuing prison and university partnerships after the tragedy of Fishmongers' Hall.

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This is a guest post by Dr Ruth Armstrong (@cambridgecrim).

Collaboration, Accountability & Evaluation

‘Hope is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well, but something rooted in conviction that there is a good worth working for.’

A long history

There is a long history of universities working in partnership with prisons in the UK. Over the last ten years there has been a dramatic proliferation in these programmes, and a move within the prison service to establish formal mechanisms for collaboration and develop adequate funding streams. By 2019 there were more universities than ever before collaborating with prisons to deliver opportunities for people in prison to study higher education content, often alongside students who are not in prison but are currently studying at university.

This all came to an abrupt halt when Usman Khan, a former student with the University of Cambridge flagship Learning Together project attacked delegates at the second alumni event of the Learning Together Network. He had been released from prison and was being managed in the community by a MAPPA team including MI5 and counter-terrorism officers. Despite his repeated assertions during the attack that his actions were against the police and not against Learning Together, those most harmed in the frenzy were delegates at the event from Learning Together and the Fishmongers Hall company.

Most tragically, my colleague Jack Merritt and alumna Saskia Jones were murdered. Usman forced his way out of the building onto London Bridge and was chased by several delegates of the Learning Together alumni event, including three former prisoners who were Learning Together students. They prevented him from harming anyone else on the bridge. After these brave individuals restrained him, the police intervened and shot him dead. It was a devastating day beyond comprehension, especially for those who were the victims of this violent offence, for the families and friends of those who died, those who were injured, those who nursed the injured and all who were escorted from the building to safety. There can be no recovery from such devastation, but lessons can be learned and good can be salvaged. Since then, I have been working to this end.

The purpose of this post

Publicly there has been much commentary on these events. Occasionally there were contributions from well informed, thoughtful individuals with a close understanding of the work of prison and university partnerships and issues around counter-terrorism. Sadly, newspaper columns were more often filled by people whose desire to comment far exceeded their understanding of what happened and of the complex issues involved. Less publicised is the work that has gone on behind the scenes. Amidst personal devastation and throughout the challenges of Covid there has been an army of serious and committed criminal justice professionals, civil servants and academics doing a lot of quiet hard work to understand what happened and why, to evaluate it forensically and academically, and build forwards in ways that are grounded in solid substance rather than cheap rhetoric. This blog describes this behind-the-scenes work, the platform it provides for the practice and evaluation of partnership working moving forwards, the gaps in provision that remain and what is needed to build forwards well.

A framework for collaboration

The bravery, collegiate support, purposeful work, insight and wisdom of colleagues in HMPPS and the MOJ before and since the Fishmongers Hall tragedy have been unwavering. In these public servants, I have found the kind of moral courage developed through years of professional heartache in a system beset by heart-wrenching tragedy. It has been a privilege to work alongside them in small ways over the last few years to carefully consider how to safeguard the good, while working diligently to provide frameworks that minimise the possibilities for harm.  A working group of criminal justice and academic practitioners involved in all different areas of higher education partnership working convened by HMPPS and MOJ has met a number of times to develop a draft framework agreement that can be used to enable partnership working. The group has identified that a framework to support partnerships needs to:

  • Outline what prisons can expect from universities and what universities can expect from prisons in partnership working.
  • Clearly delineate responsibilities for appropriate risk assessment and management, with criminogenic risks managed by qualified professionals and appropriate educational risk management frameworks routinely expected of higher education institutions. This will protect criminal justice and university employees engaging in this work through providing clear expectation of what they can expect and must demand from their institutions to do this work well.
  • Set expectations for limited and appropriate, yet sufficient information sharing among appropriately qualified individuals and within legal frameworks, acknowledging the right to privacy and safeguarding.
  • Respect ethical and legal frameworks by not categorically excluding any individual on the basis of the type of conviction alone, but provide for inclusion on the basis of individual risk factors appropriately assessed by a qualified criminal justice professional.
  • Be developed in line with existing frameworks for Release on Temporary License (ROTL) to ensure safety, consistency and cohesion as students who have taken part in higher education courses in prison continue through their sentences and in their studies post release.

The framework will be put to Ministers in the near future to inform their decisions on the future of higher education partnerships with prisons.

A valid evaluation framework

The Fishmonger’s Hall inquest made it abundantly clear to me that criminal justice practice and policy, public commentary and some lawyers’ arguments are based more on populist rhetoric than an understanding of methodologically sound evaluation evidence, to which I remain committed. The first and vital steps in any gold standard evaluation are a sufficient participant population and a valid outcome measure. This is what our research team have co-produced with our Learning Together students. The findings of our final publication on the longitudinal evaluation of Learning Together validate the scale co-produced with our students since Learning Together began in 2014. The scale provides the necessary platform for the next stage of rigorous evaluation of education initiatives in prisons and post-release.


The findings provide a way to measure the personal, interpersonal and contextual dimensions of growth through learning, dimensions which are known to be relevant to movements into more positive futures and away from crime. The scale provides a way for:

  • students to self-assess and understand their own progress;
  • partnerships to understand their impact on individual, interpersonal and contextual development trajectories over time and in different contexts; and
  • the outcomes of different educational initiatives to be reliably compared in relation to each of the assessed factors.

The overall aim was to develop a tool capable of providing a valid measure of each of these elements of growth through learning, and their interaction. Such a tool, routinely administered, will provide a basis for understanding the extent to which higher education can claim the accolades for the transformative effects it often receives, or whether, in fact, the context in which higher education is experienced, and the fabric of the interpersonal interactions that carry or deplete its potential, are just as important. My bet, you won’t be surprised to read, is on the latter – that good work reaching its potential always depends on collaboration, on interpersonal connections and commitments, and on the context – the soil of growth – being fertile and not sterile or even worse, hostile.

The gaps that still need to be filled

I am heartbroken by all that has happened, a heartbreak which is compounded by leaving this work. I have recently taken time to meet with some of our Learning Together students in prison so we could process our loss together and have written about it in this farewell published in Inside Time.

I now leave this work I loved secure in the knowledge I have done my best to ensure the beginnings of a common framework for practice and evaluation through which many partnerships can continue to flourish. My enduring hope is that once the practice framework is agreed and in place, those continuing their existing partnerships, and the new ones that are only just forming, will have rigorous evaluation at the heart of their work, and will use the evidence they gather to continually improve and shape best practice. Coordination of practice and evaluation is required to support the kind of collaboration that holds us all to the highest of academic and professional standards; the standards of those brilliant colleagues I have had the privilege of working alongside from other universities in the Learning Together Network and beyond, who know what it takes to do this work well, constantly expect more of themselves and always inspire the best in others.

Proper funding

My unequivocally expressed desire is that the value placed on this work in the commitments made by the MOJ, HMPPS, the Secretary of State for Education and the Chief Executive for the Office of Students in their responses to the Coroner’s Prevention of Future Death’s Report from the Fishmonger’s Hall Inquests, will result in the provision of an adequate budget to support the necessary coordination of practice and evaluation, so that the highest standards can be achieved by all involved. This could be achieved through an appropriately staffed office within HMPPS, or indeed by appropriately resourcing an independent organisation outside of HMPPS to take on the work that was being done by the Learning Together Network. If this can be achieved, then the future of this work can be determined by rigorous evidence of best practice. Such a commitment seems, to me, to be the most appropriate response to the despair caused by the tragedy. Personally, I will now be taking some time to grieve and recover, knowing that I didn’t just walk away when I could have, but worked hard to do what I could, with the support of those who remained in my team, to provide the best possible platform for future practice and evaluation on which others can now build forwards.

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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2 Responses

  1. Brave, bold and forward thinking! It is courageous to endure such painful learning and use it in a positive way!

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