Ireland: We’re Here To Help: Peer to Peer Literacy in Portlaoise Prison Education UnitD Higgins, S Gilligan, J Meally (Portlaoise Prison) and A Hegarty (NALA)

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n the first pilot of its kind in Ireland and prompted by learners and teachers in Portlaoise Prison Education Unit, the Irish Prison Service and Laois Offaly Education Training Board supported a group of learners completing a level 6 accredited literacy tutor training programme. Ireland’s National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) delivered, and Waterford Institute of Technology certified Developing Literacies 1.

Those attending the collaborative introductory sessions included learners, prison education officers, teachers, probation staff, and the prison chaplain. The focus was on raising awareness of literacy and its central role in human interactions, accessing rights, literacy confidence and wellbeing, while participants identified common experiences of education and wider inequalities.

Supported by teachers, some learners then became Literacy Ambassadors, building on successful peer led models like the Samaritans’ Listeners Programme. These Ambassadors encouraged others to return to education, designed posters using plain English that were displayed on prison landings. Promotional flyers were distributed in prison laundry bags. One slogan was we are here to help. A Literacy Ambassador said it I’d talk to four people then they’d talk to others, and it would go on like that.

Some learners agreed to train to be literacy tutors. This involved 30 hours of training and a four month apprenticeship robustly supported by a sound mentoring structure developed by teachers with education officers. Learners, matched with students and with supervision, undertook their fledgling practice. Despite Covid-19 restrictions, peer tutors worked on assessment portfolios (assignments and three comprehensive lesson plans). Recognising how much their involvement in prison education had benefited them, those who completed this training said they wanted to give something back. Another said, Prison can be a tough and unforgiving place at times and a lot is taken from you but one thing that cannot be taken is education.

Others identified a growth in compassion and a newly articulated understanding about the masks people adopt to protect themselves and their identities whilst incarcerated. Many saw their involvement in the programme as a means of being good role models to their children. These learners have envisaged a different type of education underpinned by adult education principles of inclusivity, empowerment, ownership, and transformation: creating pathways for life beyond prison.

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