UK

London Bridge attack: What is the Learning Together scheme?

Closed cell doors at HMP Norwich

The London Bridge terror attack unfolded during a conference organised by a University of Cambridge programme called Learning Together.

The prison scheme was holding a fifth anniversary event at Fishmongers' Hall when a participant wearing a fake suicide vest began a knife attack.

Two people were killed, including one of Learning Together's coordinators, Jack Merritt, 25, and a volunteer, Saskia Jones, 23.

What is Learning Together?

Learning Together says it brings together offenders and those in higher education "to study alongside each other" in equal partnership.

The University of Cambridge said the programme "has broken down prejudices and created new possibilities for all of those who took part".

The institution said the scheme illuminated the "wealth of untapped academic talent inside the criminal justice system".

An initial course linking criminology students and prisoners was formed in 2014 at HMP Grendon in Buckinghamshire, according to the University of Cambridge website.

The programme has since expanded to include a further course at Grendon and another at HMP Whitemoor in Cambridgeshire. Other partnerships include projects at HMP Brixton in south London and HMP Warren Hill in Suffolk, among others.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Jack Merritt was a course coordinator for Learning Together

Professor Stephen Toope, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said on Sunday that Learning Together does challenging work with an often maligned community.

He told the BBC: "It is always difficult to be working with populations that are, in some sense, not always very well regarded in society - people who have been convicted of offences.

"But the whole purpose of the programme is to try to ensure that people who have been convicted will be given educational opportunities that will allow them to better integrate into society when they are released."

Image copyright Metropolitan Police handout
Image caption Saskia Jones was a Cambridge graduate and volunteered with Learning Together

The programme has been praised by government, with then-Justice Secretary Michael Gove saying, in 2016, that the scheme "provides the chance for prisoners to work towards their full potential and gain qualifications as a result".

'Mutual exchange'

Law student Jake Thorold, a former participant in a Learning Together course at HMP Grendon, wrote on Twitter about his experience.

He said the programme "insists on seeing the best in people" through a "genuinely mutual exchange" of ideas between students and prisoners.

Another student, Alice Harnett, wrote of her experience of working with prisoners on the programme for the national prison newspaper Inside Times.

"The Learning Together scheme combined students from inside and outside of the prison to come together and experience a carefully structured academic-based course," she wrote.

"We would meet once a week for approximately two months, to participate in a lecture and follow up seminar-style interaction session."

The criminology scholar said she was struck by the course's impact on participants.

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Media captionListen to Jack Merritt speak on a BBC podcast about his work helping inmates at a prison to study law.

She wrote: "...a woman disclosed that the most valuable lesson she had taken most from the course was the shift in how she viewed herself.

"[The woman] explained that prior to Learning Together, she suffered from the habit of immediately assuming what she perceived as an insignificant status in any given scenario...

"[The] course had taught her to feel relevant and valued, that she could walk into a room and look people in the eye and express her opinions."

'Not forgotten'

One former Learning Together participant, Eugene, is quoted on the University of Cambridge website as saying the programme made him realise higher education opportunities existed for people like him.

"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."

Image copyright PA Media
Image caption HMP Whitemoor, where one of Learning Together's courses is held

And the programme is not solely limited to academic enhancement.

Another prisoner, Craig, says, in an online testimonial, that a 10km run to raise money for the programme allowed him to give back to the University of Cambridge and improve his fitness.

He said: "The event not only gave me and the guys focus, it also brought our community together and allowed us to give back something to Cambridge who do a great deal for us."

He added: "These events help remind us that we haven't been forgotten and that not only do we feel part of a wider community outside of prison, it gives us hope of a future where one day we will rejoin that community."

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