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Games, drama and role-play: a unique approach to learning in prisons
Antonia Rubinstein describes how Safe Ground works with men in prison
More than half of the men in prison have no qualifications; 82% of all prisoners have a writing ability at or below Level 1 . When these men bring with them such a poor experience of formal learning, how can we overcome their resistance to education in a prison environment?
Safe Ground  has been working in prisons since 1995, successfully using drama and story-telling as hooks to engage prisoners in learning. In 1999, HM Prison Service asked us to produce a parenting and family ties programme that would help prisoners who are resistant to addressing their offending behaviour progress into accredited learning and training in work skills; the new programme had to include assessment opportunities for adult literacy.
We now have two programmes: 'Family Man' and 'Fathers Inside'. Both programmes have, as their core theme, the importance of men in prison retaining (or, in some cases, rebuilding) their relationships with and responsibility for their partners and children during long periods of separation. Each programme is designed for a group of 20 learners of mixed age, ability and ethnicity; involves 120 hours of learning over six weeks; and provides assessment opportunities for four different QCA approved* awards. We use drama techniques to unify and manage the group, engender peer learning, and enable participants to practise new ways of thinking and behaving.
More than 600 prisoners contributed to the development of 'Family Man' and 'Fathers Inside', ensuring that these programmes are bespoke to the learning needs of men in prison. The content, structure and methods used have been formulated to diminish the fear of learning, and participants soon come to realise that adult learning does not have to be the same sort of experience as being at school.
A short story, Oscar Wilde's The Selfish Giant , and a film drama that was written and performed by prisoners, introduce the subjects of parenting and maintaining family relationships from prison. These are sensitive subjects for prisoners but they are very motivating and can be used to produce immediate and tangible improvements in their lives. The story and the film both serve a dual purpose.
They enable a degree of escapism and catharsis as learners identify with the situation of the protagonist in each resource, and they are used to stimulate discussions, improvisations and role plays that provide assessment opportunities for listening, speaking, reading and writing. Learners take part in a wide range of games, drama and written activities to explore what it means to parent and to maintain relationships with family members from prison. The climax of both 'Family Man' and 'Fathers Inside' involves the learners producing a presentation that demonstrates what they have learnt to an audience of their peers, prison staff and relatives. This also provides portfolio evidence for assessment.
Motivation and self-esteem
Completion rates for each course are high, with over 50% of learners achieving a basic skill qualification at Level 1. The written assignments may not be the most popular aspect of the programmes but learners are motivated to complete their portfolio because they recognise that, by doing so, they will improve how they communicate with their relatives. By the end of the programme, their selfesteem has increased and they have demonstrated that they are capable and willing to learn new skills and ways of thinking.
'Family Man' and 'Fathers Inside' are helping to change the way men learn in prison. HM Prison Service has now acknowledged the potential benefits of involving relatives more closely in offender learning. As a result, new activities are being developed that enable the integration of relatives into both programmes. This approach aims to provide future learners with increased impetus to overcome the fears and difficulties they associate with learning.
Antonia Rubinstein is Director of Safe Ground
 Social Exclusion Unit (2002) Reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners. The Cabinet
 Safe Ground is an educational charity. See www.safeground.org.uk
 The text of The Selfish Giant can be found at www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/
* See Glossary