The Open Academy: An Exploration of a Prison-Based Learning Culture

Morwenna Bennallick

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This mixed-methods study is an exploration of both the structured and structuring aspects of ‘learning culture’ theory (Hodkinson et al., 2008; James and Biesta, 2007) as experienced within a unique prison-based educational environment. Attending to differing scales of focus, the thesis explores numerous interlocking personal, social and cultural features of cultures of learning within that site and the individuals operating within it. The research was conducted in HMP Swaleside, England, with a particular focus on the Open Academy; a unique prisoner-led, wing-based learning space tailored towards further and higher education mediated through distance learning.

In order to situate this site within the prison-wide cultural features, a quantitative and qualitative survey was conducted with prisoners and staff across the prison (prisoner n=296, staff n=59). Additionally, in-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted with 28 prison residents (including but not limited to Open Academy students and educational ‘peer mentors’) and two members of staff. Observational data were also collected through ethnographically-led methods. These data were coded and analysed thematically.

The overall results suggest that the practices operating within the learning culture of the Open Academy created a supportive and potentially transformative space for many at varying points in their educational trajectories, either as established distance learners or as emergent students. Within this site, many cultural features operated in synergy; they complemented and reinforced each other. However, outside of this space, the learning culture of the wider prison was dominated by conflict rather than convergence. Enduring hierarchies of power and control, institutional pressures, and fundamental tenets of the fields of ‘prison’ and ‘education’, led to challenging cultural divisions which ultimately threatened the initiative. The study has implications for the development, and measures of success, of educational innovations in prison.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
Award date1 Apr 2019
Publication statusPublished - 2019

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