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Prisons Research Centre


Learning Together: what happens when students from universities and prisons learn together?

Learning Together: Education as the Practice of Freedom


What is Learning Together?


In January 2015, Drs Amy Ludlow and Ruth Armstrong were successful in obtaining support from The University of Cambridge’s Teaching and Learning Innovation Fund to pilot a new educational initiative called Learning Together. Since then, Learning Together has attracted funding from the British Academy, ESRC and HEFCE and has become a national initiative with growing international connections. Learning Together was highlighted as an example of best practice by Dame Sally Coates in her 2016 review of prison education. Amy and Ruth have since received a Butler Trust Award and awards from the Prisoner Learning Alliance and the University of Cambridge for public engagement with research for their work on Learning Together.

Learning Together brings together people in criminal justice and higher education institutions to study alongside each other in inclusive and transformative learning communities. Learning Together partnerships provide higher education opportunities for people to study together, and learn with and from each other through dialogue and the sharing of experience. Learning Together courses are academically rigorous and their design and delivery builds upon and, through evaluation, advances educational, sociological and criminological research and best practice.


‘Learning Together made me realise my world was small. I know a few people, on a few streets. I thought universities and places like that were spaces I couldn’t go to, but now I realise I can go there. I can exist outside of my small world.’ (Eugene, Learning Together student 2015)


Our learning communities aim to be individually aspirational and socially transformative. They provide progression and pipeline opportunities for learners to nurture individual growth and to challenge social disadvantage as a barrier to learning. Our students are offered the opportunity to become trained educational mentors to develop future activities and support future cohorts of students in their learning. Through educational partnership working, and the intellectual friendships that are forged between students, mentors, facilitators and lecturers, we hope to support higher education and criminal justice institutions to better achieve their goals. As part of our partnership activities, we forge complementary, productive collaborations including, for example, between local businesses and prisons who cater end of course celebrations and provide employment opportunities for people post-release, and between community choirs and bands who work with musicians in prison to celebrate the achievements of all students who successfully complete a course.


We aim to be at the forefront of developing and implementing collaborative, innovative and theoretically led evaluation of practices and impacts in order to understand how best to positively transform individual, communal and broader social views, practices and structures. In doing so, we work collaboratively with other prison and higher education partnerships and networks, nationally and internationally.


Our vision is for education to be the practice of freedom.


Our mission is to provide evidence-led and robustly evaluated intellectually ambitious and individually and socially transformative learning opportunities through partnership working between higher education and criminal justice organisations.


At the University of Cambridge there are currently three Learning Together courses, one in criminology that was formed in 2014 in HMP Grendon, and further two courses that have run since 2017 in literary criticism (currently running in HMP Grendon) and philosophy and theology (currently running in HMP Whitemoor).


History and Growth


The idea of bringing together people in higher education and criminal justice organisations to learn with and from each other has a long history in the UK. One of the founding fathers of criminology, Max Grunhut, established a society at the University of Oxford in the 1950s called ‘Crime-A-Challenge’. Among other things, this society regularly brought boys who were serving sentences at Huntercombe Borstal to have tea with law students at Oxford colleges and took Oxford students to the borstal for residential stays. Professor Nigel Walker built upon Max Grunhut’s legacy, first by taking students from the University of Oxford to learn alongside men in HMPs Oxford and Grendon, and again later with Cambridge students from the Institute of Criminology in partnership with HMP Bedford. The Institute of Criminology in Cambridge has continued to work closely with, and learn from, people who work and live within the criminal justice system. Learning Together seeks to deepen and broaden these relationships.


With support from Governor Jamie Bennett, the first Learning Together course ran at HMP Grendon from January to May 2015. In response to growing national interest from academic and criminal justice practitioner colleagues, Amy and Ruth organised a series of engagement events to share what they were doing (practices), why they were doing it (theoretical basis) and how they were evaluating it (research methodology). Many colleagues who attended these events established their own educational partnerships and, from this, a national network of over 20 partnerships has grown and has contributed to the development of the Prison and University Partnerships in Learning network (PUPiL), which is run by the Prisoners’ Education Trust.

There has been international interest in Learning Together from Mexico, Africa, Australia, Denmark, France and Germany. In 2016, Amy and Ruth travelled to Mexico and Australia and held conferences with academics and criminal justice practitioners within prisons. The first international Learning Together partnership is led by Drs Lorana Bartels and Kelly Richards and is based in Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre.


Understanding Learning Together


Since its inception, Learning Together has been evaluated with the aim of understanding participants’ experiences in order to feed those experiences forward into our practices and enrich the theoretical foundations on which Learning Together is designed and delivered. Our approach to evaluation is highly inductive and our methods have been co-produced with our students who are participating in the research. We are gathering data in four key ways:


(1)    asking all of our students who wish to participate in the research to complete questionnaires before and after the course that ask them to reflect upon their personal attributes and sense of self-efficacy;

(2)    asking all of our students, mentors, facilitators and lecturers who wish to participate in the research to share a story each week during the course about their experiences of learning and to answer questions about their story;

(3)    asking all of our students, mentors, facilitators and lecturers who wish to participate in the research to partake in a reflective interview at the end of the course; and

(4)    asking all of our students, mentors, facilitators and lecturers who wish to participate in the research to come together as a group to make sense of their experiences as a whole in light of the stories that they have shared.


We are actively exploring opportunities to incorporate technology in both the delivery and evaluation of Learning Together.



Get Involved in Learning Together


We are always interested to hear from people who would like to be involved in educational partnership working between higher education and criminal justice organisations. Please email us.


I want to become a Learning Together student, mentor or facilitator


Educational partnership working is spreading across many higher education institutions and criminal justice organisations. To apply to take part in your local Learning Together partnership, search the PUPiL map or email us for more information. All Learning Together students follow the same application process – there is no distinction between students based within criminal justice organisations or students based within higher education institutions. All application processes assess motivation to learn rather than previous formal educational achievement. Some Learning Together courses are accredited, whereas others are voluntary opportunities for learning that are non-credit bearing for all students but that result in a certificate of achievement that evidences a student’s achievements and progress.


I want to start a Learning Together partnership


If you work at a higher education institution or within a criminal justice organisation, and might like to form a new Learning Together partnership, please email us. We would be delighted to talk to you about your ideas and how we might work together.


We are working collaboratively with our colleagues across the UK and beyond as part of The Learning Together Network; a network of likeminded people from universities and prisons who are interested in educational partnerships that are individually and socially transformative. The Network provides a platform for dialogue, support and sharing best practice. Learning Together is grounded in the transformative power of dialogical learning, so the starting point for the Network is that our ideas and practices are better when we learn from and with each other.


People in the Learning Together Network support each other in forming and sustaining transformative learning partnerships between higher education and criminal justice organisations. The Network welcomes academics, practitioners and policy makers who are committed to supporting and furthering Learning Together partnerships and working in ways that are consistent with our vision, mission, core purpose and values. Our core values are:


Potential                              Nurturing talent wherever it is found.

Progression                        Providing routes for our learners to reach their potential and challenging structures and practices that limit this.

Participation                       Collaborating with our students and with each other.

Praxis                                    Acting in theoretically informed ways that shape and change the world and our knowledge, and feeding new knowledge back into our action.


The Network has a team of regional representatives who coordinate activities between local partnerships and support the development of new partnerships. As a Network we work through our regional representatives to:


  • Connect institutions and practitioners looking for partnership learning opportunities;
  • Explain our values and the practices that flow from these values;
  • Share resources, support delivery and evaluation, and celebrate in each other’s success;
  • Advance knowledge of relevant research, methodologies and best ethical practice; and
  • Engage with relevant local and national policy.


I want to support Learning Together


We would be delighted to hear from anyone who might like to support Learning Together and The Learning Together Network in any way, whether by volunteering time, ideas or any other resources. Please get in touch!






R. Armstrong, A. Ludlow and L. Bartels (forthcoming) ‘Learning Together: theory, reflexivity and localism in prison and university learning partnerships’.

R. Armstrong and A. Ludlow (forthcoming) ‘Learning Together: productive discomfort and the ache of beauty’.


R. Armstrong and A. Ludlow (2016) ‘Educational partnerships between universities and prisons: how Learning Together can be individually, socially and institutionally transformative’ Prison Service Journal 225, 9-17:








Radio / TV

Useful Resources




P. Freire (1996) Pedagogy of the Oppressed (St Ives: Pengiun Books, 2nd edition)

C. Dweck (2008) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Ballantine Books)

C. Smith (2010) What is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life and the Moral Good from the Person Up (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

D. Wilson and A. Reuss (eds) (2000) Prison(er) Education: Stories of Change and Transformation (Winchester: Waterside Press)


Articles and talks


S. Maruna (2011) ‘Re-entry as a rite of passage’ 13(1) Punishment & Society 3-28

P. Hirschfield and A. Piquero (2010) ‘Normalization and legitimation: modelling stigmatizing attitudes towards ex-offenders’ 48(1) Criminology 27-55

B. Brown ‘The power of vulnerability’:

C. Dweck ‘The power of believing that you can improve’:


Dr Ruth  Armstrong
Research Associate
British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellow
St. John's College Research Associate
Dr Amy  Ludlow
Affiliated Lecturer in Law; Supervisor for M.St. in Applied Criminology, Penology and Management, Institute of Criminology