Working it out: Does the new education and employment strategy add up?

25 May 2018

By Nina Champion

On 24 May, Justice Secretary David Gauke announced a new strategy for education and employment in, and out, of prison. Much of it wasn’t new, there were positive statements of intent, and some disappointments. But is the financial investment going to be there to make it a reality? 

Messages worth hearing

Much of the education and employment strategy, such as governors having more control of prison education budgets, was already in train. Nonetheless, it was very welcome to have a commitment to learning and employment so publically stated. The positive media attention, with former prisoner learners appearing on BBC Breakfast, Radio 4 and the like, helps to engage and inform the public that people can and do change and that the concept of second chances is something as a society we need to support. Having big-name employers publically saying that employees with convictions can be some of their best and most loyal workers is an important part of this message, helping move towards a less punitive public discourse, as well as encouraging other employers to access a talent pool they may currently be missing out on. The proposed National Insurance holiday would be a welcome incentive, but this has yet to be agreed by The Treasury.

What about careers advice cuts?

A notable omission from a strategy focused on employment was the provision of careers advice. Access to expert careers advice from the start of a sentence is crucial.  It remains unclear what will replace the National Careers Service (NCS) that was cut from all prisons in April. Governors will have access to the Dynamic Purchasing System (DPS) from September to commission careers advice services, but crucially won’t have any specific funding to pay for it – this needs to change. The £13 million saved from cutting the NCS has not been passed on to governors, neither is it certain that this amount will be available to them once they gain control over the education budget next April. A stealth cut to the overall budget would be a significant barrier to achieving the aims set out in the strategy.

Tablets and tech

Having raised the value of digital learning with both the Prisons Minister and the Justice Secretary in recent weeks, I was delighted to see reference to in-cell laptop and tablet technology in the strategy. Previous Ministers have been reluctant to publically state support for such technology, presumably due to a fear of ‘iPads for lags’ headlines, so this was the sort of helpful and courageous stance we need. However again, it was not clear where the investment would come from.  The mention of education providers in this section of the strategy indicates that they might be relying on education providers to make the investment.  IT skills are vital to any job these days, as well as to day-to-day life, and so five years after I co-wrote a report on the issue with Prison Reform Trust, it is gratifying to see some long-awaited progress and political backing.

A broader purpose of prison education

In his speech the Justice Secretary recognised that there are too many low-level qualifications, and said governors should put their residents on a ‘path to employment’ from their first day inside. The shift in the emphasis from an output (qualification) to an outcome (employment), is one long-championed by the Prisoner Learning Alliance, and an important signal that governors have a responsibility to think beyond the gate in designing their curriculum. However employment should not be treated as the sole outcome of prison education. It was disappointing that the strategy held no mention of the new Ministry of Justice definition of prison education. For people further away from joining the workforce, for example older prisoners, those in the high-security estate or with mental health or substance misuse issues, education is also important for wellbeing and personal and social development. They must not be forgotten.

ROTL for education

It was right that the Justice Secretary recognises what a vital tool ROTL is. However, although ROTL for employment was mentioned, ROTL to access further and higher education is also a crucial opportunity for prisoners to improve employability. The employment strategy must look beyond manual trades and the service industry, as important as they are. People funded by PET have gone on to set up their own businesses and charities. They have become youth workers, university lecturers, business analysts, actors and artists to name just a few. Prisons cannot offer everything and so making use of distance learning, e-learning and ROTL will be vital to provide the subjects and levels people want and need to transform their lives and contribute to their families and communities.

Soft skills

The employment aspects of the strategy focus very much on vocational skills, however developing so called ‘soft skills’ are also vital. Communication, team work, resilience, confidence, organisation, problem solving, conflict resolution and a positive attitude are all part of what makes someone more likely to find a job.  Labour Market Information (LMI) is a useful tool, but care needs to be taken when analysing what the results mean for the curriculum offer.  In a recent visit to a young adult establishment, I was told by learners that a course in radio and music production had been scrapped as ‘LMI showed a lack of jobs in this area’. This was without considering the fact this popular course had effectively engaged the young men in learning; developed literacy through writing lyrics; increased technology skills and built their confidence and self-esteem.

The strategy was launched in HMYOI Isis, which has a majority of young adult prisoners, and has been a fine example of the way a prison can adapt their education offer to its population. Over the past year, Isis has brought in a range of voluntary sector organisations such as Safe Ground and Kinetic Youth, has run successful prison university partnerships with Open Book at Goldsmiths university, developed family learning days as well as vocational partnerships with the catering and construction industries. Setting someone on the path to employment involves expert careers advice, opportunities to develop an holistic mix of academic, vocational, digital and ‘soft’ skills and brokering relationships with employers. I do hope the sums add up to make this strategy work.