A critical education for prison leavers

Journalist Helen Clifton reports on a School of Participation being delivered by Church Action on Poverty in Salford.

Barbed wire, protected doors and shutters make it almost impossible to figure out how to get into Salford’s Windsor Drop-in Centre.

Yet despite the intimidating exterior, once inside, the centre offers a cafe, showers, medical facilities and a hugely welcoming atmosphere.

For local ex-offenders – many of whom end up leaving prison homeless, with only £46 in their pockets – the centre is a lifeline.

It is now home to the self-titled 'Positive Changes' group, made up of seven men, all of whom have been in prison.

Over the past six weeks, the group have been on a 12-week ‘School of Participation’ course, run by Church Action on Poverty to help them re-enter work and education.

Tony Leather, 37, has spent four and half years in prison for offences including assault, robberies, and car theft.  He says it is unlike any other school he has been to.

“At school you get told what you’re doing, and when you’re doing it; here you get asked what you want to do and how you want to do it.  And because you choose, you actually put more effort into it.
“It’s our knowledge; the knowledge of people who have been in the situation we’ve been in.”

Action learning

The course was created by Weaste activist Sarah Whitehead – herself a School of Participation graduate – after she realised that the 2011 riots were, in part, an expression of voicelessness.

“They haven’t got someone talking down to them who they don’t relate to,” she says. “They’ve got the freedom to learn what they want to learn. And I think that’s why they keep coming back. Because it’s what they want to do.”

Joyce Kay, Community Pride Link Worker, explains that giving participants control over their learning – within a rigid framework for discussion – allows them to have ownership of the process. The group eventually plan to create a handbook for prison leavers.

“By sharing their issues and experiences, they actually learn from each other,” Kay adds. “They can see that there is an action coming out of this, so they feel like it is relevant.”

Church Action on Poverty run a number of schools in Salford with deaf and blind people and young mothers, as well as the Salford Apprentice course for aspiring activists, in conjunction with Salford University. Each school costs between £10,000 and £12,000, and funding comes from the Lloyds TSB Foundation and the National Lottery.

Based on the teachings of Brazilian thinker Paulo Freire, the programme rethinks adult education as a process which empowers people to reflect on their society and take the initiative to create direct change – whether by forming businesses, creating social enterprises, or through political action.

“When people are isolated individuals, they can believe that they are unemployed because they are failures,” explains John Lockhart, Director of the Freire Institute at the University of Central Lancashire.

“But once you see unemployment in a more systematic way, as a product of how the economy and society works, it appears that there is a collective action that you can take.”

Church Action On Poverty, Unit 28 Sandpiper Court, Water’s Edge Business Park, Modwen Road, Salford M5 3EZ

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