One Page: Innovation as an evolutionary process

Ian Merrill
September 1, 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.


Innovation as an evolutionary process


The recent Prison Strategy White Paper states the Government's ambition for people in prison to leave custody with skills and qualifications to help them get jobs and apprenticeships in their communities, and encourage a change to life away from crime.


It is a worthy aim. At the same time, we know that many prisoners cannot join skills courses because they struggle with basic reading and maths. Around 57% of people in prison have literacy skills below those of an 11 year old. And it is a similar story when it comes to numeracy.


I have talked before about the people who did not learn to read or do maths in school. Some did not have the opportunity of education at all. Others, for a variety of reasons, fell behind or could not engage with formal lessons.


Following the White Paper, the Ministry of Justice is calling for 'innovative solutions' to the literacy and numeracy challenges in prisons. These solutions will give more people in prison the basic skills they need to take part in education and training programmes.


I believe 'innovative solutions' can often grow from what is already around us. Designer Marc Jacobs once described innovation as “an evolutionary process”, saying “it's not necessary to be radical all the time”.


I like Jacobs' link between innovation and evolution. It recognises the value and the potential of what we have now. Effective innovation is not just about throwing away and building something new. It includes developing and investing in things that already work, such as approaches we know people engage with, and that have an impact on their lives; whether they are customers of fashion houses or those trying to learn basic life skills, like reading.


This is Shannon Trust's story. We grew from the simple but compelling idea that one person in prison could help another to learn. This benefits both people, where they each gain new skills for their lives outside the criminal justice system.


In our early days, the focus was to improve the day to day experiences of people in prison. This includes learners reading their own letters from family and friends, or enjoying books and magazines to pass the time. Mentors also gain a new focus, and have the satisfaction of helping others. Few people used the phrase peer led learning back then, but this is what it was.


Shannon Trust's first key innovation was seeing the potential among people in prison. Time, patience and empathy can build relationships, which can inspire learning and growth.


Trust can also grow from this. It allows a person to take the risk of admitting they struggle with reading or numbers and to ask for help (even if they would not dream of asking a teacher or walking into a prison classroom).


Our peer based learning approach works. Shannon Trust reaches thousands of learners and mentors each year. We know learning to read changes lives for the better.


Our learners have shared their joy at being able to make out words in a letter without having to ask someone else; being able to read aloud to their child during visits or over the telephone; and finding freedom in the prison library. Others talk of joining an English course; of how reading opened a door to new skills; and of sitting an exam for the very first time.


Mentors also say how their role with Shannon Trust has helped them develop skills to support their rehabilitation. They recognise when someone might be struggling; build a rapport; discuss practical arrangements with the prison authorities; and experience the buzz of making a difference to someone else.


As an 'evolutionary process', of course, innovation must continue for any organisation to remain relevant and effective. Every single person Shannon Trust helps is a success story. Even so, I believe that we should not stand still. It is vital that we listen to those we are trying to help, and that we are attuned to changes affecting the prison service colleagues we work alongside.


Listening has led to many recent innovations at Shannon Trust:

  • we have added basic maths to our programme – we realise how many of our learners struggle with numbers too
  • we are expanding into the community – learners may leave custody when they are only part way through their Shannon Trust learning
  • we are digitising our learning programmes – we recognise that technology will help us to support more people, and further our impact


We welcome the call for innovation when it comes to literacy and numeracy, and the recognition of how important these key skills are. Sometimes though, the most effective way to innovate is to invest and grow what is already there. Viva la evolution!


If something I have said here resonates with you, whether you agree or disagree, or you have a suggestion on how we can improve what we do, please get in touch.

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