Changing legislation so prisoners can do apprenticeships would be transformative, writes Sally Alexander
While there has been a lot of media focus on school pupils missing learning because of the coronavirus, there has been less attention on further education learners missing out – and particularly, learners behind bars in prison.
That’s why, as a provider with 30 years’ experience delivering prison education, I was particularly interested to hear the influential House of Commons education select committee is launching an inquiry into the challenges facing prison education.
The announcement last week by Robert Halfon MP, the committee’s chair, acknowledges that teaching provision has been “significantly impacted for those in custody” because of the pandemic.
It certainly has. Our team has been working around the clock preparing paper-based packages of learning which prisoners can then complete, to continue developing their skills for when we all return to normal.
While this ensures that learners are able to continue to access their learning, we know that nothing can substitute for face-to-face learning, which is designed to replicate an FE college. This is particularly important since learners currently spend so much time in their cells.
In March we were able to flip students on Milton Keynes’ College campus into virtual learners overnight. However, prison IT infrastructure meant this just wasn’t possible.
So first of all we would like to call on MPs to consider how we can better extend education services into cells, so learners can continue learning outside the classroom.
If an iPad- or Chromebook-style device is available in cells for a greater number of prisoners, they can access courses, modules, homework, a research portal and more, and be much better prepared for release.
This would improve their skills for the digital world, which is good news for rehabilitation. According to a joint report by the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education, prisoners involved in any sort of education have a significantly lower reoffending rate on release compared with their peers.
We don’t know how long this pandemic will continue and it is important that we make positive innovations now. It’s a win-win for everyone – learners and society.
In a possibly even more exciting area, we would encourage MPs to look closely at the current restrictions on prisoners doing apprenticeships with employers. This could be potentially ground-breaking.
At the moment, the existing legislation doesn’t allow us to offer apprenticeships to learners in prison because they are unable to have a contract of employment.
If parliament changed that legislation, prisons would be able to explore commissioning the Prison Education Providers, such as Milton Keynes College, to develop apprenticeship pathways. This would link prisoners up with employers and set them on a path to employment on release.
We know how transformative apprenticeships can be. A change in legislation would be a great first step towards convincing employers to take on former offenders, with companies like The Timpson Group already showing what can be achieved.
Meanwhile, having digital devices in cells would allow them to do the off-the-job training element of the apprenticeship smoothly too. That’s why it’s important these two changes are considered hand-in-hand.
Encouragingly, it looks like Robert Halfon MP and his team are already thinking about this. The committee’s announcement asks whether “apprenticeships could form an integral part of the rehabilitation process, acting as a bridge from prison to working life on the outside, while simultaneously helping the country address its skills gaps”.
Yes, they could. We would be delighted to see this introduced.
My final plea to MPs would be to talk to us. For instance, the committee raises other important questions, including whether special educational needs and disabilities are being properly met.
Actually, I think prisons have developed innovative solutions already in this area that could be shared more widely with the FE community.
Meanwhile, if MPs can begin with those two areas – apprenticeships for prisoners and access to a digital device inside cells – they will have made an encouraging start.