MoJ’s prison service U-turns on mandatory apprenticeships

Training requirements ‘put strain’ on prison safety, HMPPS says as thousands of custody officers drop out

Training requirements ‘put strain’ on prison safety, HMPPS says as thousands of custody officers drop out

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The government’s prison service has pulled out of apprenticeships after forcing thousands of custody officers onto the programme before realising there wasn’t the capacity to train them and run prisons safely.   

His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) experienced a rapid rise in apprenticeship delivery after deciding, in 2021, to make it mandatory for all new prison officers to take the level 3 custody and detention officer apprenticeship.   

Starts shot up from just 20 in its first year of delivery in 2018/19 to 2,387 in 2021/22 and then 3,320 in 2022/23 – making it the 14th largest apprenticeship provider in England last year.   

But HMPPS, part of the Ministry of Justice, recently found that releasing apprentices from operational duties for around 200 hours over the period of the apprenticeship to complete off-the-job training was “putting strain on staffing levels and the safe running of prison regimes”, according to its recent annual report.   

More than 1,200 prison officers, who were put onto the apprenticeship dropped out of their training last year, leaving HMPPS with a retention and apprenticeship achievement rate of just 21 per cent in 2022/23.   

The prison service has now stopped enrolling new apprentices and chosen to focus on other training schemes. It has also just been judged as ‘requires improvement’ by Ofsted.   

The case echoes a situation at HMRC two years ago, when the government’s tax office put thousands of employees onto apprenticeships before realising it did not have capacity to train them – leading to the majority withdrawing from their programme.   

A prison service spokesperson said: “We launched this scheme [mandatory apprenticeships] prior to our surge in prison officer recruitment and have since changed the way we train our hardworking staff.”   

Despite HMPPS’ rapid rise in apprenticeship delivery, Ofsted waited almost seven years before conducting a full inspection of the government agency.   

The prison service received an early monitoring visit from Ofsted in May 2021 when the employer provider had just 182 apprentices, in which it was judged to be making ‘reasonable progress’.   

Ofsted rules state new apprenticeship providers will normally receive their first full inspection within 24 months of their early monitoring visit – a timeline that was recently reduced to 18 months. But the watchdog didn’t fully inspect HMPPS until March 2024 – 34 months after its early monitoring visit.   

FE Week understands Ofsted had planned to fully inspect HMPPS in November 2023, but deferred the inspection due to a staffing incident. A November inspection would have still been six months later than the window for fully inspecting new providers after a monitoring visit.   

HMPPS’ learning centre is based in Rugby, Warwickshire, but trains apprentices working in prisons across the country. The employer provider only offers the level 3 custody and detention officer apprenticeship and had 2,284 apprentices in learning at the time of Ofsted’s full inspection last month.   

Ofsted published HMPPS’ grade three report this week, in which the watchdog praised HMMPS’s “highly experienced” coaches for creating a “positive and calm learning environment” with high standards.   

But the inspectorate called out the service’s low completion rates and its lack of capacity to teach functional skills English and maths, which most of its apprentices are required to complete.    

The report said: “Leaders have developed a curriculum in response to the significant skills needs of the prison service. The service recruits large numbers of new staff every year and has a constant need for initial officer training.   

“Following a detailed review, leaders identified that they did not have the capacity to support the high number of prison officers entering the service to complete an apprenticeship.    

“Leaders have changed their training offer to stop the high numbers of apprentices withdrawing from their apprenticeship early. Leaders have removed the mandatory requirement for all new prison officers to study the apprenticeship. As a result, the number of officers completing their apprenticeship is beginning to increase.” 

HMPPS is still on the government’s apprenticeship provider and assessment register, but it has not yet decided whether to put any prison officers through apprenticeships in the future. 

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