Prisoner apprenticeships: The start of a new policy paradigm

The introduction of apprenticeships for prisoners is not just a landmark win for social justice, writes John Thornhill, but a model for a better way to make policy

The introduction of apprenticeships for prisoners is not just a landmark win for social justice, writes John Thornhill, but a model for a better way to make policy

11 Oct 2022, 5:00

This week saw a monumental change in the justice sector. Just three days after legislation was changed to allow prisoners to become apprentices while completing their sentences, the first offenders have already started their apprenticeships.

It is difficult to understate how transformative this change is for prison education – and the justice sector more broadly. It will provide a fresh start for many offenders by offering a high-quality technical pathway for them to gain the skills that are so essential to securing stable employment upon their release. This is a critical part of breaking the cycle of reoffending.

At LTE Group, we are fortunate to bring together experts from the full spectrum of the FE and skills sector, from further and higher education to apprenticeships and prison education. Over the past 12 months, we have used this unique position to play a leading role in putting this policy change into practice. This has led to offender learning specialists, Novus, and independent training provider, Total People, working hand in hand to deliver one of the very first prisoner apprenticeships in partnership with the Timpson Group, with the support of HMP Thorn Cross. 

The benefits

In our minds, there are two core benefits to changing legislation to enable offenders proper access to apprenticeships (including allowing those in open prisons approaching the end of their sentences to leave custody to undertake on-the-job training).

First, given that many offenders have low literacy levels, providing them with a hands-on alternative has the power to engage offenders in skills and learning in a way that they might struggle to access in a classroom. This more practical pathway will enable more offenders to make the most of their time in prison, and ensure as many as possible can gain skills and prepare for a career at the end of their sentence. This not only ensures that sentences are more productive but also benefits society more broadly, as research shows that prison education can significantly reduce reoffending rates.

Second, we passionately believe that high-quality skills and training are key to solving skills gaps in the economy. That includes equipping prisoners with the skills needed to support the economy upon their release from custody. With many sectors having more vacancies than available skilled workers, it is vital every source of potential talent is tapped. We believe that equipping offenders with skills is an important part of the solution. 

A blueprint for innovation

In May, LTE Group held a roundtable that brought senior officials from the Department for Education and the Ministry of Justice together with experts from Novus and across the sector to discuss how we could collectively make apprenticeships a reality for prisoners. We are delighted that, this week, that vision has come to pass.  Not only is it a positive and progressive policy that has transformative powers for offenders, but it also demonstrates the power of collaborative working within the sector and across government.

This change would not have been possible were it not for organisations from different parts of the FE and skills sector working together and with central government. We are hopeful that the powerful impact of this approach in prison education will provide a blueprint for engineering further policy changes in the future with the potential to unleash impactful innovations.

When viewed in the context of a UK economy at close to full employment and a growing number of vacancies in the jobs market – coupled with skills gaps in numerous sectors and a shortage of the highly skilled workers employers need – it is clear such collaboration and innovation is essential if the FE and skills sector is to play its full part in meeting the challenges faced by UK plc.

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