Thoughts, stories and events to share

Open Book

Ellie Price, about 5 years ago

Quite often I hear people talking about second chances. I think, actually, for a lot of people it's their first chance"

Based at Goldsmiths College, University of London, Open Book is a scheme designed by Joe Baden to open up higher education to people with addictions, convictions and mental health problems. It has been running since 2002 and now has over 200 graduates to its name. We met with him to talk about his work which has recently won him an OBE.

Q: What does Open Book offer and to whom?

A: We have really informal provisions, so we can offer classes in different bases and in different subjects – from philosophy to creative writing, sociology, anthropology, history, whatever you can think of really...sign language, music – it's really eclectic, right across the board. We can also work around, all over, with people at different levels. People don't have to come, no one tries to push them to go on to the course or anything. Quite often people start by doing written work. We then have what we call our Extended Project, which is a 5000 word essay. People come up with their own question. It's accredited and completely free.

We've had people come to us who can't read or write. Generally four years is the period it takes for someone coming to us to go on and do a degree. We're now working on a Year Zero degree where we can offer the first year of a four year degree that we can deliver in lots and lots of different communities. The idea is that we have a group of different universities and people can start at any Uni. So it's sort of like an access course, but it's part of a four year degree. So hopefully that's going to have a big impact.

We're also trying to get a homeless college off the ground. We're also going to be working in the future on degree-level apprenticeships around community work, working with addiction and working with reformed offenders.

One of the real problems, and this is an inevitable dilemma really, is that I can sit down with my colleagues who are all getting paid and talk about the political, the idealistic, the ethics behind what we do, but in reality we don't have to live on a tin of beans a week. And so it's about trying to find ways to fund individuals, just so that they can live while they're studying.

I think the most important thing is that people are comfortable with who they are, whoever they are and whatever place they're coming from. That's the most important thing. We protect the people who come through the programme, we try to look after our own students. It helps that there's a shared culture. One thing that's really interesting about Open Book is that the shared culture is really positive. We think we're brilliant. And we never have a quiet class. When you get an Open Book seminar group, there's always going to be a healthy debate!

Q: What's your own background and how has that influenced your work?

A: I'm very working-class man, always will be. I mainly mix with working-class people and I've never really aspired to move away from that, that's never been a mark of ambition [for me]. We say that we're about social equality rather than social mobility. It's not about trying to turn people into clones, it's not about some sort of cultural imperialism, we're not going out and trying to change people. And I've not really changed, I've just been allowed the space to become the person I should have been at the start.

Q: How was your experience as an undergraduate at Goldsmiths?

A: Coming into this sort of environment [university] was enlightening and liberating. When I started my degree, one of the things I was never going to do was try to fit in again. I remember saying [to someone] “Hello mate!" and he said “I'm not your mate" and I thought “Yeah and you're not likely to be either". So there was a lot of cultural stuff. I also didn't have any confidence. It's actually more comfortable going onto a prison wing for the first time and sitting in a cell, because there's something sort of familiar [about that], sadly. And I've always said it's a terrible indictment of our education system, that somebody feels more comfortable in a cell than in a place of education.

So I decided I was just going to be myself. I was never going to change the way I spoke, never really thought that I should have to. And that's very much what we do with the project as well. We know that trying to be something you're not leads to madness and guilt and so we don't do that with people on the project: people keep their culture, whatever culture that may be.

Q: Why did you establish Open Book in 2003? Was it very much influenced by your own experiences?

A: Totally. I ended up working for a probation project that I'd actually come from. And then a job came up here [Goldsmiths] for a Learning & Experience position that was actually research, and it was about widening participation. But to be honest with you I sort of hijacked it. So we moved away from the relaxation classes. We're not trying to impose anything on people. We're not trying to be experts in their lives, it's about going “Right, what do you need and how do we get there?" So that's how the project came about. We based the provisions on my experiences of what was wrong with statutory agencies.

Q: Which other agencies does Open Book work with?

A: Other universities, we liaise with probation services, the Prison Education Trust, addiction agencies. Separate to what we do, we run AA meetings. Basically whatever services people come from. Hospitals contact us, addiction agencies, where we refer people. We're working with homeless hostels, we work with St Mungoes.

Q: Why do you think Open Book is so successful?

A: I think the efficacy of what we do far outstrips any other organisations that are doing a similar sort of work, simply because the people who do the work have personal experience. Not everyone who works for us has personal experience (we've got people working for us who are academics) but they're all people who believe passionately in the importance of education as a foundation for progress. And that's societal progress and personal progress. It also forms democracy. It's so important.

The new regime at Goldsmiths has put a lot of belief in us and has really supported us. We've battled against a results-based focus and strangely enough our results are better than other people's. And I think it's because of the freedom from funding and targets. We're not trying to force people down any particular road. We just try to offer the best service we possibly can and the most holistic service that we can. And everything that comes from that is a positive by-product. We're not trying to change people, we're not trying to rehabilitate people.

Q: What are your aspirations for Open Book, how can you see it growing?

A: I'd love to see there be an Open Book project in every university in the country. And not just universities - we want to look at developing some consultancy, possibly more research. But research with a point, you know, not research for the sake of research. Research that's going to have some impact or some effect on methodology.

Q: Why is it important that people in prison/people with convictions have the opportunity to get involved in further/higher education?

A: What's really important is that we have people getting into positions of influence. It would be great to see people involved in social policy coming from a position of life experience as well as a position of academia. It's really important as far as we're concerned that people do get in positions where they can affect the culture, affect the mechanisms, the methodologies that are used.

Quite often I hear people talking about second chances. I think, actually, for a lot of people it's their first chance. Because it's about identity. So I might be an ex-offender and recovering addict, but that's a small part of who I am. Also, I think everyone has a right to an education. Personally, education is my politics. It's the only way I can see there every being a genuine social change without resentment so for me it's about social change. And genuine equality. To me it's a cure-all, education.

I often have people say to me, “If all people get a degree, who's going to do the manual labour?" People with degrees! This idea that one group of people is better than another, perpetuates division. There's a vested interest in people being kept separate and being kept divided. But everyone should have an equal chance. And everyone should be respected.

Q: In your experience, what makes people with convictions good employees?

A: If someone gives them the chance, they are the most loyal. Because they've had to work on themselves as well, they've had to, we've all had to do a little bit of navel-gazing (although you can't do it forever because it would drive you mad). They're the most honest people you could ever meet as well, even though their past would indicate the opposite.

Image: Sarah Ainslee