Blog: Join up education and employment services

20 May 2015

The PLA's Nina Champion, writes:

Nina ChampionOn Friday 15th May I gave a presentation at an event organised by the Employment Related Services Association (ERSA) and Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA) member the Association for Employment and Learning Provider (AELP). The organisations represent providers of the Work Programme and are responsible for helping unemployed people, including ex-prisoners, develop skills and find jobs.

The ERSA and AELP are committed to joining up employment services and prison education so that when learners leave prison they can capitalise on their qualifications and get working.

Helping the providers understand each other’s work is vital if this crucial partnership is to work effectively.  

The Future of Prison Education

Focusing on the transition for prisoners ‘Through the Gate’ and into the community, I spoke about the PLA’s new briefing aimed at making some key changes to the current Offender Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) contracts. My presentation was based on the eight recommendations of The Future of Prison Education Contracts: partnership working, engagement, progression, personal and social development, technology, quality, through-the-gate and leadership. This was followed by a stimulating discussion with the audience. 

Attendees agreed the negative label of ‘offender’ in the OLASS title was unfortunate and called for a debate about possible alternatives.

The audience agreed with our recommendation for increased screening and awareness training of learning difficulties. They said the current system of self-referral doesn’t capture all those in need of support.

Developing teachers

A discussion was had about whether Continuing Professional Development (CPD) should be mandated in the education contracts.

Some attendees confirmed how difficult it was for teaching staff to be released from their core work to attend CPD training.

One education manager said that staff teach all year, unlike FE colleges in the community, and often have to cover classes due to staff shortages so time for CPD is challenging.

Her staff members currently have to attend team meetings and plan lessons during their lunch breaks as their contracted hours are taken up with teaching. Another attendee, who runs CPD training on maths, agreed that it was very difficult for prison education staff to be released for training.

Overall feedback on PLA’s briefing was positive and we were congratulated by ERSA and AELP. They are looking to produce a best practice document as a useful addition to complement the briefing – so watch this space.            

Evidence of what works

Speakers from ERSA and AELP also gave a valuable update on the employment-support sector highlighting that Iain Duncan Smith has returned as Work and Pensions Secretary. Just prior to the election, he launched a ‘data lab’ for employability using Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) data.

Richard Ward, from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, presented the research methodology for the upcoming OLASS 4 evaluation which includes looking at cross departmental data to help better understand the link between skills, employment and reoffending. This represents an important victory for the ERSA/AELP forum who have worked hard to get the DWP and Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to enter into data sharing agreements to better understand the impact of employability programmes in the community on reoffending rates.

Ward also informed attendees that the mandatory basic skills assessments are thought to be responsible for a significant increase in the uptake of OLASS provision during the first half of this academic year (41% up on the midway point last academic year).

The PLA report ‘Smart Rehabilitation’ emphasised the importance of an effective induction programme and highlighted good practice at women’s prison HMP Low Newton (featured in a film launched at last year's PLA conference). Since then, Ward confirmed that PLA member NIACE has worked with other partners, such as PET, to develop ‘impressive materials’ for an education induction curriculum designed for the first weeks of a woman’s sentence. It has currently been designed to be wholly fundable through SFA through accreditations; however this may be reviewed in the longer term.

As recommended in the PLA briefing, there is potential for this pilot induction programme to be extended to the male and youth estates. Ward said BIS are working to align the OLASS and CRC contracts as the latter will be very interested in helping shape the prison provision of learning and skills because they are paid by results on reduced reoffending. It is hoped this will support the improvement of the ‘through the gate’ agenda.

Ward also highlighted the successful work happening in practice development groups looking at issues such as distance learning and BIS have set aside significant resources for workforce development via the Education Training Foundation for teachers, managers and prison staff.

Impact of the general election results on employability services

ERSA’s communications forum is now working to raise public and parliamentary awareness of why people need support into work and how people are being supported. They are looking for best practice examples of how The Work Programme helps ex-prisoners into work and plan to invite newly elected MPs to visit Job Centres.

The organisation has also produced a document on the ‘Employability perspective of the General Election Results 2015’. Key messages include:

  • Based on the Conservative manifesto, the sector needs to be ready for £13 billion spending cuts across government departments.
  • Efficiency options may include ‘increased use of technology to support the job seeker journey and/or outsourcing or reinvention of Job Centre Plus – the only major direct delivery organisation retained by the government’.
  • The manifesto pledged to cut the welfare bill by £12 billion, but there is no clarity yet on where these savings will be made. ERSA expect a review on how best to support those with ‘long term yet treatable conditions such as drug or alcohol addiction’ into work following a manifesto pledge to ‘halve the disability employment gap’. Conditionality on treatment is thought to be one option being explored and ‘significant new support for mental health’ has been discussed.
  • The manifesto placed a strong emphasis on youth employment with a pledge to get all young people ‘earning or learning’ through ‘commissioning a dedicated youth programme, increasing conditionality for under 21s claiming JSA, removing housing benefits for young people and increasing apprenticeships and vocational learning’.
  • ERSA raise the possibility of a ‘further squeeze on the Adult Skills Budget’ as low level classroom-based FE courses become replaced with apprenticeships. There was also a manifesto pledge to ‘publish more earnings and destination data for Further Education courses’ which will be useful.

This blog was written by Nina Champion, Head of Policy, Prisoners’ Education Trust and Secretariat for the Prisoner Learning Alliance, representing 23 expert organisations.