One page

Ian Merrill
May 24, 2022

Welcome to ‘One page'. In this monthly newsletter, I will talk about the people I have met, and the things I have read or seen relating to Shannon Trust's vision, which is a future where everyone can experience the positive impact of learning. I hope these short pieces will start conversations, generate new ideas, and help our vision become a reality.


I see an unhelpful pattern, so let’s change it


Last week, the Parliamentary Education Select Committee published an inquiry into prison education. It strikes a familiar tone, one where prison education needs an overhaul and is failing many.


We have seen rebuttals from various organisations responsible for prison education, following the report. These too, highlight that the system is underfunded; that not enough prisons prioritise education; that the estate is not digitally enabled; and that education contracts do not encourage the right provider behaviours.


All of these charges are likely true, and they all point to a need for the system to change. However, if we want change, then do we not need to lead it ourselves by looking in the organisational mirror, doing things differently and taking more, but measured, risks?


In a pamphlet on reform, Tolstoy wrote: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Tolstoy's sentence has outlived his essay, but it strikes me that as people in the 'world' we are working in, organisations like Shannon Trust should not just recommend changes we think are needed, but we should shape change for the better by adapting ourselves.


At Shannon Trust, we recognise that we need to change if we want to do more good. In our best year, we might reach 10% of people in prison who need support with learning to read. We are determined to find a way to support everyone who would benefit. And the starting point for this has been to change our culture.


What is culture in an organisation? For me, culture is the collection of core, shared beliefs and behaviours that take hold, and then drive how we communicate with others. We have worked hard to change features of the organisational culture that were holding us back. These features relate to our ability to effect change, and about what happens when we try and fail.


The truism that ‘working in prison is very difficult’ had become something of a mantra, serving to keep expectations modest and maintain the status quo. However, we challenged ourselves by reframing the issue. There are many challenges in the prison environment, but if we are serious about reaching more potential learners, what factors can we control, and where should we focus our efforts? This is starting to bear fruit as we secure funding to grow our team, and take more responsibility for scaling up programme delivery.


We have also questioned the idea that if I try something new as a member of staff or volunteer and it fails, I’ll be blamed, so why try in the first place? Now our team is encouraged to come up with new ideas and to turn them into innovations, knowing that if we try new things, we may fail, but that is OK. No one will be criticised for trying, or blamed if it does not work.


I am sure this cultural change is helping us to be more creative as we find new ways to improve what we do. Our recent move to add basic maths to our learning offer, is a good example of this change.


Developing a positive organisational culture is always a work in progress. However, I am delighted with the cultural changes we have made so far, and I am confident that our culture will not eat our new organisational strategy for breakfast. Strategy is something I will return to in my next piece. Most importantly, the work we are doing to improve our culture will benefit the learners we are here to support.


Please get in touch if anything I have written resonates with you - perhaps you agree, disagree, or you have a suggestion for how we can improve what we do.

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