‘Ground-breaking’ prisoner apprenticeship scheme flops

DfE slammed for leaving prisons to figure out apprenticeships after changing the law

DfE slammed for leaving prisons to figure out apprenticeships after changing the law


Fewer than ten prisoners have enlisted on an interdepartmental apprenticeship scheme, lauded at its launch to offer opportunities to 300 prisoners in England, an FE Week investigation can reveal.

Data obtained through a Freedom of Information request has found the Department for Education has missed its target by at least 90 per cent, after fewer than 10 people serving time in prison have started apprenticeships in England since long-awaited legislation was introduced in September 2022.

The DfE and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) offered apprenticeships to up to a hundred eligible prisoners across England in the first year of the pilot scheme. It’s expecting up to 300 prisoners to be recruited by 2025.

The data, provided by DfE, specified that fewer than five offenders are undertaking level 2 supply chain warehouse operative apprenticeships, and less than five are on level 2 production chef apprenticeships.

The few apprentices are spread across the country, with nearly five located in the Yorkshire & the Humber, and less than five each in the North West and South East England regions.

The specific number of individuals who signed up for prison apprenticeships is unknown, due to the government’s rounding-up policy, to protect the identity of participants.

Before the law change, thousands of prisoners who were eligible for release on temporary licence (ROTL) to carry out work or training were not able to carry out apprenticeships due to Ministry of Justice policy prohibiting offenders from signing employment contracts, to avoid potential contractual disputes because they are serving prisoners.

Apprenticeships are classed as a contract of employment in law.

After five years of discussing a change, in September 2022, an amendment to the law was made to allow prisoners in low-category open prisons on day release to be able to undertake apprenticeships without the need for a contract of employment.

The news made headlines at the time, with former education secretary Nadhim Zahawi calling the scheme a “life-changing chance” for prisoner rehabilitation and employment.

“We are about to expand the scheme to include more prisoners”

However, figures showing the slow uptake exemplify the cracks in the prison system.

The MoJ says the low figures are due to the department restricting the scheme to a small number of open prisons.

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “Our drive to get offenders away from crime and into work has seen us double the number of prisoners in employment six months after release, and apprenticeships are just one part of these efforts.

“Since its launch the apprenticeship model has been restricted to a small number of open prisons and we are about to expand the scheme across the wider estate to include more prisoners and increase the numbers of participants.”

A DfE spokesperson said it had nothing to add to MoJ’s statement.

Prison education experts have lambasted the devastatingly low figures, blaming the government for leaving prisons to figure out apprenticeships themselves after changing the law. They also cited multiple barriers to improving apprenticeship take-up, such as understaffing in prisons, uncommitted employers, and a misunderstanding of apprenticeships from prisoners.

“They said, ‘there’s a law change, now off you pop,’ and expected the prisons to be able to respond,” said Alex Miles, managing director of non-for-profit Yorkshire Learning Providers, who works with prisons in the region. 

Prisoners’ Education Trust chief executive, Jon Collins, added: “It is no surprise that it is taking time to get this off the ground.”

“Pressures on prisons are acute and with severe overcrowding and staff shortages, it is really difficult for prisons to implement new initiatives. If we want to give people leaving prison the best chance to thrive, we need to sort out the broader failings in the prison system,” he said.

Miles, who set up a quarterly prison support forum in Yorkshire prisons in anticipation of the law change said even prisoners misunderstood the scheme.

“There’s a women’s prison in York I go into all the time, and they think I’m there to talk to them about apprenticeships for their children on the outside,” she said.

Some employers have quietly walked away from the scheme too. 

Timpson is a large employer of ex-offenders and partnered with training providers Novus and Total People to deliver apprenticeships at the time. But FE Week understands that Timpson has walked away from the provision.

Timpson did not respond to a request for comment.

Pub group Greene King said they’ve found one prison leaver undertaking an apprenticeship and will complete early this year.

A spokesperson for Novus also claimed one of the prisoners partaking in the pilot. 

“To date, one of our learners has started an apprenticeship through the pilot, receiving positive feedback from their employer and going on to secure a job in the hospitality industry following the end of their sentence,” they said.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of hospitality employer representative UK Hospitality, said: “It’s naturally disappointing that there has been such low take-up of apprenticeships through this scheme, but it remains the case that hospitality has a successful track record in helping people re-enter the workforce.”

“It’s not like they let them out willy-nilly”

The Co-op, also a big namecheck in DfE’s launch, did not participate due to the “restricted types of apprenticeships currently on offer that aren’t compatible with roles available at Co-op, for example, hospitality, catering, construction etc.”

A spokesperson for the retailer said: “Also, other factors, such as the practicalities of having prisoners on ROTL, carrying out a job and attending college to study makes the logistics tricky.”

Miles refuted the claims. “Logistically, it’s not too much of a nightmare,” she explained. 

“All of that pre-vetting happens by the prison, it’s robust. It’s not like they let them out willy-nilly,” she said.

Miles added that since then, prisoners, prisons, employers and apprenticeship providers are all on board with the scheme, but central government need to coordinate support with all the parties.

“The issue is that there’s nobody centrally, either via the MoJ or the DfE, coordinating this,” she said. “I think if the MoJ and DfE can come together and fund a coordinated effort, prison apprenticeships would triple.”

One positive Miles says the scheme has done, is improve conversations with prisons about upskilling.

“It has opened prisons up to have a much more skills-based response. In York prison, they have just rolled out their first round of bootcamps in the prison, rolled out two weeks ago.”

The MoJ launched a new Prison Education Service at the start of the academic year, which will seek to recruit a head of education in prisons. MoJ said the service will expand its “ground-breaking” prisoner apprenticeships scheme.

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