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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



Prison Education: A Hard Cell, Part 1

by James King
Language: EN
Document available also in: DE FR ES PL


A ladder leans against a stack of books
The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) launched its new Learning and Skills Strategy in 2016, setting forth a clear vision to ensure “that everyone in our care has the opportunity to engage in creative and flexible learning that unlocks potential, inspires change and builds individual strength.”


This approach is essentially based on a liberal arts approach to education offering a range of creative activities and building learning around the needs of the individual as much as possible.


While literacy and numeracy skills are of course important to communication, comprehension and an understanding of world of work, they have often been presented using traditional and outdated chalk and talk methods. To embrace a more ‘social practice’ approach to learning engagement we have extended our range of project themed or blended learning.


Project themed or blended learning

What education has largely failed to do is to provide an exciting range of subjects that stimulate interest and encourage engagement in learning. In Scotland, working closely with our core educational providers Fife College, we have improved and honed our methods of delivery over several years utilising project themed or blended learning.

This method of educational intervention harnesses a range of contemporary issues or historical subjects, as its core theme is to explore key issues of interest (often controversial) which encourages critical and lateral thinking and often aids self-reflection. Examples of such themes include national sporting events, current affairs and contested topics that have proved particularly effective at engaging, motivating, informing and challenging long-held views of learners.

The wide-ranging appeal of contemporary subjects also enables a range of activities pitched at different levels for each individual learner and which often stimulate associated creative activities in writing, poetry and artworks. Accordingly, a wide range of accreditation can also be included or designed around activities to provide accreditation or to contribute towards wider programmes of learning.

These projects have often included ‘external’ input from partners such as the Black Watch museum for our World War 1 project;  the Holocaust Memorial Trust for our World War 11 project;   and various  Political speakers from both sides of the argument during our referendum debate. Projects have also involved various charitable causes and also contributions towards city of culture bids.


Partnership programmes

We have also nurtured and established wider partnership programmes that offer a depth and richness of curricula which would otherwise have been unavailable to prison based learners. For example, our Cell Block Science project funded by the Welcome Trust through St Andrews University provides innovative Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects to prisoners and their families across six Scottish prisons. 

The programme also includes key input from the universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Strathclyde. Just recently, this innovative programme won the Herald national partnership award for demonstrating a ‘transformative impact’ in education and collaborative work.


Similarly our Astrobiology initiative in partnership with the University of Edinburgh has produced outstanding work leading to the publication of a book by our lead partner and the British Interplanetary Society ‘Life Beyond, from prison to Mars’, highlighting the work of Scottish prisoners in designing a Mars space station.  This programme has promoted the benefits of scientific exploration, collaboration, democracy, citizenship and nurturing empathy.

At present, our prisoners at one establishment are involved in growing and monitoring growth in plant food rooted in ground basalt rock to mirror conditions on Mars. This is real life scientific research that will inform future work by the university and wider partners involved in innovative work.


Our partnership with other departments at the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow has prompted the introduction and expansion of philosophy projects at a number of Scottish prisons.

These projects explore the underpinning tenets of the good society examining of the basis of epistemology, ethics, self-reflection and critical thinking. These partnerships have also promoted support for higher level learners through structured reading programmes and peer student support provided by Napier University.


Successes and challenges

In summary, the range of innovation and creative partnership work helps stimulate interest and engagement, moving beyond the more remedial and outdated teaching methodologies which generated limited success. Out experience tells us that if you want adults to engage in learning, especially those who have been disaffected or who haven’t engaged in educational activity for some considerable time, then you have to offer something that is attractive and appealing and which challenges learners in developing new skills while simultaneously challenging their thinking through critical liberal approaches to learning.

Although like many other jurisdictions we will still have challenges around engagement, culture and the numbers of people populating prisons, we are confident that our approach is yielding results and sits well with recent reductions in the Scottish prison population and crime at historic low levels. However, we do not take such trends for granted and we are continuing to consult with various partners and arts organisations to design programmes and interventions that will continue to inspire change and transform individual lives.




A photo of James King
Jim King joined the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) in 2002 from a background in community based adult education. This role involved managing a national Scottish Government project to explore the extent of literacy and numeracy difficulties in Scottish prisons.

 Jim took up post as Head of Education in 2011 overseeing all custodial education, arts and libraries and representing SPS at national education forums. Jim has promoted the use of the arts and Project Themed Learning to encourage engagement and innovation in prison learning. Originally from Glasgow, Jim is based at SPS Headquarters in Edinburgh but travels regularly across all Scottish prisons. He is currently leading an international review of custodial learning on behalf of Europris and the European Prison Education Association (EPEA).

From an academic perspective, Jim has a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) Degree in Social Science (GCU, Glasgow), Post Graduate Certificate in Developmental Disorders (University of South Wales); Master of Science (MSc) in Adult Education (University of Glasgow); Master of Arts (MA) in Literacy and Language Studies (University of Lancaster) and he has recently completed a Master of Studies (MSt) in Criminology at the University of Cambridge. 



You may also be interested in:

Prison Education: A Hard Cell, Part 2 (blog)

Using music as a tool for development, education and rehabilitation (blog)

Prison Education as ‘Purposeful Activity’ in Scottish Young Offenders’ Institutions (blog)

Belfast Met’s education and skills provision in NI prisons (blog)

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