Practical issues still remain to be worked through, writes Peter Cox
“One huge benefit that apprenticeships would provide is hope, and sometimes hope is all you need to influence change.”
This moving statement by former prisoner David Breakspear was submitted to the House of Commons education select committee’s inquiry into prison education.
As National Apprenticeship Week comes to an end, it seems that there are, finally, genuine grounds for optimism.
The Ministry of Justice today announced that it will change the law to allow prisoners at open prisons across England to access apprenticeship opportunities while they are still serving time but are out on day release, or nearing the end of their sentence.
Opening up apprenticeships to more prisoners is a positive step in reducing reoffending.
Using education and training to support offenders from prison into employment is a crucial step in giving them the tools they need to transform their lives.
Novus stands ready to play its part. As part of LTE Group, a leading further education college group, it has more than 30 years of experience of delivering education and training in prisons.
In partnership with training provider Total People, also part of LTE, it has launched an innovative “foundation apprenticeships” pilot programme at HMP Hindley in Greater Manchester, mapping level 2 vocational provision to existing apprenticeship standards.
Learners who progress to an apprenticeship after their release will be able to demonstrate some of the knowledge, skills and behaviour required.
This could lead to a two-year apprenticeship being completed in as little as 12 months – fast-tracking the journey from prison to sustainable employment.
We are keen to explore how we can use our strong employer links to make use of the new flexibilities announced by the MoJ.
But if we are to ensure that apprenticeships achieve their full potential, there are three key issues which must be considered.
1. Employment, contracts and ROTL
An apprenticeship must be a real job – but exactly what is and isn’t possible for prisoners is not entirely clear.
Governors can already allow prisoners to be paid by an outside employer – and impose a levy on their earnings, with proceeds going to victim support.
In 2019 the government announced that more prisoners could be eligible for release on temporary licence (ROTL) earlier on in their sentence.
Little progress has been made since then, however, and practical issues remain to be worked through.
ROTL may not be appropriate for some prisoners or in some types of establishments, while learners switching prisons mid-apprenticeship would cause disruption to all parties. Excluding these groups limits the number of prisoners who could benefit.
Another option would be to open up apprenticeships to prisoners carrying out work within prisons.
At HMP Hindley, for instance, Novus runs a general maintenance programme under which prisoners refurbish cells, classrooms and toilets.
This isn’t a simulated environment. If activity could be carried out by a contractor, it could equally be done by an apprentice, provided that contractual requirements are met.
2. Attracting providers and employers
Even outside prison, training providers are understandably cautious in who they enrol. If an apprentice doesn’t progress to completion, the consequences are serious, both in terms of potential funding clawback and achievement rates.
Providers and employers need reassurance that they would not be penalised for situations out of their control, such as a prisoner not being released from their cell due to operational challenges.
And while some employers already recruit offenders, including Novus’ partners such as Greene King, Kier and Willmott Dixon, further incentives could encourage more companies to engage with prison education.
3. Ensuring “through the gate” support
If an apprentice is released part way through an apprenticeship programme, will they be able to complete it? Will they still receive support from the tutors they have come to trust? And who will ensure they are given safe accommodation during their apprenticeship?
All parties must work together to ensure apprentices receive the wraparound support they need. And we must not forget about pay.
A 21-year-old in the first year of an apprenticeship is entitled to a minimum hourly rate of just £4.30. Is this really enough to steer a vulnerable young person away from reoffending?
If prisoner apprenticeships are to be a success, they must be rigorous, respected and sustainable. If this can be achieved, then they could offer the hope that so many prisoners badly need.