Grendon and Cambridge students challenge the status quo

Broadening horizons and raising expectations by Learning Together

Cambridge university library. Chrisgel Ryan Cruz

“I no longer feel like someone with nothing to offer. I now know that I too can change the world, or maybe just contribute to the community on the weekends”

John is a student at HMP Grendon, a therapeutic prison in Buckinghamshire. Last month he graduated from the Learning Together course and stood up next to his fellow students to talk about what he’s learnt.

The twist: His fellow students are University of Cambridge MA students and they have all been studying the course together, in prison.

The Learning Together course consists of six-seven workshops focusing on the Criminal Justice System. The classes cover themes such as long term imprisonment, desistence, and having a democratic voice, with a strong emphasis on debate and discussion. Students are encouraged to challenge each other – and themselves.

We hear from the students that facilitated and recently graduated from the course, from both Grendon and Cambridge.



John never thought he’d be able to stand up and give a speech. He never thought he had anything to offer. John was part of the second Learning Together cohort to graduate, he talks about what he learnt.

“What was surprising for me, having lived the life I had, was that those honest, successful, law-abiding academics were actually interested and listened to me and my opinions.

If we talk about making changes to people’s lives and aspirations, breaking down boundaries and basically putting a sheen back on to an individual’s life, Learning Together does this and more.

Change the world

“I no longer feel like someone with nothing to offer. I now know that I too can change the world, or maybe just contribute to the community on the weekends.

We’re on to something…

“My perspective was massively boosted through the talking, listening and learning that we did together. More than that was the very genuine support given if needed, and the laughter that always followed. On ‘Learning Together’ we covered what helps offenders to desist from criminality – a big part of which appears to be inclusion, social inclusion. Well, going off my experience of the inclusion which is central to ‘Learning Together’ we’re on to something. It’s meant so much to me and my fellow students from Grendon, this year, it will do for next years students too.”




 Megan is a Cambridge MA Philosophy and Criminology student. She has studied alongside John for the last semester. For her, the course is about giving those inside and out of prison a chance to use their voices together.

“This experience has allowed those most close to the justice system a voice to discuss these topics, but also a voice for Cambridge students to use their experiences to inform discussion. For many of us students, this experience has been the highlight of our time at Cambridge.

It provides opportunities

“I have never given much thought to education, pedagogy or even education in prisons before this experience and this has made me realise the wider importance of it: it provides support, it provides self-worth, it provides opportunities to push ourselves in ways we would not have done otherwise.”



The course is helped to run by facilitators from Cambridge and mentors from Grendon.

The facilitators are a mix of Cambridge PhD students and Post-Doctoral researchers. Each facilitator is allocated a group of four students: two from Grendon and two from Cambridge. After each week’s lecture, they sit and discuss the course content, facilitating conversation between all. Tom Hawker gives us a study-group facilitator’s perspective.

Breaking down the walls

“There are so many rich benefits flowing from breaking down walls.

“These are not physical walls – not like the walls and fences that surround us here – but the walls in our heads that impoverish us both intellectually and socially. These are the walls between us and our goals. Between us and our best selves. And between us, and other people.

Challenge the assumptions that divide us

“We have learned a great amount about the value of community – about how simple it is to challenge the assumptions we make about each other that divide us, through honest and open discussion.

“All of us build these kinds of walls, or are complicit in their continued existence. Equally, we can each play a part in bringing them down. And by being here today, everyone here is a part of that process.”



Last year Marc was a student on the Learning Together course, this year he has been a course mentor. The Learning Together mentors provide Grendon students with additional support for learning. Helping with academic articles and writing essays, some help co-facilitating discussion groups too.

Two worlds collide

“We have two worlds that, if I can speak honestly, on paper should not be able to exist side by side. You have the great British institute that is Cambridge University, working alongside the great British institute that is the prison system. However, through education these two worlds do not collide, they come together and enhance the full potential of those who are involved.

“Seeing the students going through the different stages of Learning Together, whilst achieving feelings of acceptance, self-worth and a sense of belonging, all under the umbrella of education and Learning Together, gives us, the mentors, a great belief in the achievements of what we are part of. We have learned that by using our experiences from last year and the positive effects it has had upon us, Learning Together does not just cease once you have completed the course”.




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