Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice



COMMENDEE 2017-18: Brian is the Learning Centre Manager at HMP Perth, and is Commended for three decades of commitment to promoting literacy and family learning, and the many innovative initiatives he has driven forward.

Brian Cunningham has spent thirty years at HMP Perth bringing a remarkable and innovative range of educational initiatives to fruition. Now Perth’s Learning Centre Manager, Brian has forged a diverse and inspiring list of projects. He brings an enduring commitment to literacy, as well as to project-based and family learning.

Initial nominator Lisan Donald, a lecturer at the Fife College Learning Centre in HMP Perth, describes Brian as “dedicated, knowledgeable, and approachable” and who “encourages exceptional innovative practice and ideas.”

Here is a selection of the long list of Brian’s initiatives and projects:

Arts projects include ‘Atonement’, a CD recorded by HMP Perth Prison Band ‘The Core’, with all profits supporting a children’s hospice, a partnership with the Royal Scottish Conservatoire, singer/songwriter workshops, and an eight week ‘Cigar Box Guitars’ workshop which led to both qualifications and performances.

A Chaplaincy project, ‘Faith Imprisoned’, brought in speakers to present on people from the past, of various faiths, who had experienced imprisonment. Learners built on these ‘creative juices’ for their own writing, poetry, and art – with a coffee table book planned on completion.

As well as ‘The Seven Habits of Successful Families’, a parenting course run in partnership with Fife Adult Learning Team, a particularly pioneering approach led to ‘Family Learning’, with prisoners’ wives or partners and children coming into Perth to develop learning habits as a family.

‘Second Thoughts First’ created curriculum materials on drugs and alcohol abuse for schools, while ‘Mental Health First Aid Workshops’ increased awareness of and ways to deal with the issues. Meanwhile, a Peer Tutoring programme trained specialist mentors.

‘Cell Block Science’ allows prisoners to get a science ‘taster’, while projects on WW1 and guest speakers from the armed forces have helped, in particular, veterans in prison.

Meanwhile a regular family-oriented Awards Ceremony helps celebrate success and raise confidence. The impact of this was captured well by one offender, who said:

“I had never received any kind of award or certificate until coming here to the Learning Centre. My family are so proud it has made me want to do more.”

Brian has underpinned most of this work by working to create a very strong set of community and other partnerships.

Tom McMurchie, Deputy Governor at Perth, says Brian “sees innovation as his day job”:

“He has a very natural leadership style, a lovely personality, very good poise and no end of composure. These qualities are very much blended with a good level of tenacity, determination and assertiveness.”

Brian is still innovating. An interesting new initiative he is planning is a ‘Care Experienced’ project. He hopes to link this project with ‘Who Cares? Scotland’ and their ‘1000 Voices’ campaign. “A group of care experienced young people have visited to discuss any involvement or link to a care experienced prisoner group. This will enable us to have an intergenerational view of care experience; how it was, how it is, and how it might be. We hope to run a cross curricular approach to the project with some telling their own story/experience through creative writing or poetry and others opting for a more visual approach through art.”

The transformative impact of education on prisoners’ lives is clearly enormous, and Brian’s work, offering a diverse smorgasbord of options and projects to appeal and engage all prisoners, is inspiring. One offender’s remark sums up the impact well:

“I hated school but this is so different, I feel I can learn something now.”

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