The personal and social impact of non-accredited music education in prison: a transformative mixed methods approach to research in custodial settings

Betts, N. (2020) The personal and social impact of non-accredited music education in prison: a transformative mixed methods approach to research in custodial settings. Masters thesis, Royal College of Music.


In recent years there has been a shift in the focus of prison education, from treatment interventions and learning that centres around employability skills building, to opportunities that support personal and social development, with the aim to position education in custodial settings as a structure that supports processes of desistance. Against this background, I set out to explore the impact of my new, non-accredited music course on learners in prison, framing music-making activity in prisons within the context of social and criminal justice. I was interested in understanding why impact is or isn’t experienced in my classroom, whether it’s a direct result of the music, or if instead impact is a response to the pedagogical style to teaching music that I implement. A transformative mixed methods research approach was adopted in order to practice cultural competence, uncover multiple perspectives, build trusting relationships with the participants and address the diverse needs of the prison population. Data was collected from one cohort of learners on a four-week music course (n=6) at HMP/YOI Portland, using methods based on learning activities that are a normal part of the music course, thereby ensuring ecological validity. Data analysis was conducted using grounded theory guidelines to sharpen the thematic analysis of qualitative data, ensuring a close relationship with the data and critical self-reflection of my privileged positionality as a white, free woman. Based on concepts of Convict Criminology, interviews with two classroom peer mentors were also collected. The peer mentors were positioned as ‘insider’ research commenters in this study, situated to give a broader analysis of the research topics, to establish routes to the representation of authentic narratives of learners in prison. This research found that music-making activities in prison can have a positive impact on participants' mood, self-confidence and motivation, leading to positive; changes in personal and social development; and shifts in self-evaluation and lower-order self-concept. There was strong evidence that impact was experienced by the participants, not as a result of the music alone, but because the pedagogy created the conditions for a space that contrasted the wider prison environment. Recommendations for practice are made, including the need for a pedagogy for prison education which recognises the value of social learning experiences and ensures that within the contrasting wider prison environment, spaces can be created that support positive mood states, alternative social reinforcement and the development of autonomy supportive relationships.

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