The Government’s new Education and Employment Strategy, presents a vision of prison education which, it is hoped, will reduce reoffending rates and also help fix some of Britain’s long-term skills shortages.
At the heart of the reforms is the idea that by better preparing offenders with the skills they need to find work upon their release, and by better aligning what is taught to the needs of employers, prisoners will be more likely to gain employment upon release, and so be less inclined to reoffend.
The strategy broadly follows the recommendations put forward in the report led by Dame Sally Coates in 2016, ‘Unlocking potential: a review of education in prison’, which amongst other things called for governors to be given far more autonomy over the prison education budget and the curriculum.
The thinking behind this was simple: Governors could then tailor the education in their prison far more closely to the needs of regional employers, which in turn would greatly enhance the prospects for offenders leaving the prison and going out into the community.
This vision was set out in the introduction to the Strategy, by the Secretary of State for Justice, David Gauke:
“The vision at the heart of this strategy is to put offenders on a path to employment as soon as they step foot in prison. …We must ensure that more offenders leave prison with the basic skills that are essential to entering the workplace and with the skills employers need.”
For the plans to have any effect, however, prison governors are clearly going to need to have a better understanding of the skills needs of employers in their region.
The solution presented in the Strategy to this problem includes the replacing of the current ONE3ONE Solutions system with the New Futures Network (NFN), which has been given the explicit remit to:
“Broker partnerships between prisons and employers that create opportunities for ex-prisoners on release, in addition to delivering purposeful activity in prison.”
A big part of what NFN will do is to provide intelligence for governors about the requirements of employers in different sectors. This will include the identification of priority sectors with which prisons should engage, on an annual basis.
These sectors will be selected using three criteria, including whether prisons have the capacity to provide the kind of training required, and whether work in the sectors is likely to present legal or bureaucratic barriers to ex-prisoners’ employment.
The other criteria upon which the priority sectors will be chosen is as follows:
“Labour Market Information (LMI), including the number of jobs in different sectors and the education level, or qualifications required, in those sectors.”
To enable them to achieve this, NFN will be using Emsi data to provide key intelligence both for the national hub, and to delve down into the regional nuances of occupation demand. According to the Education and Employment Strategy, they will be using the data to:
“…identify which sectors provide the most employment in an area, how employment in those sectors breaks down by occupational code and what typical wages and qualifications required for those jobs are.”
This is crucial. The success of these reforms depends, at least in part, on whether the skills being taught in prisons match closely with those needed by employers in the region.
If they do, then those learning them are clearly going to have a better opportunity of finding employment upon their release than if they are learning skills that are not needed. And so by committing to the use of LMI to identify employer needs at the local level, the Strategy is therefore sending out a very positive and encouraging sign.
But as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, the effects of the Strategy, if successful, could go well beyond the original intentions of reducing reoffending, and actually help to fix some of Britain’s long-term skills shortages.
As David Gauke pointed out at the launch, given that most of the jobs being trained for will tend to be at the low skills end of the job spectrum, this could well end up helping to fill the gap created by reduced migrant labour in the wake of Brexit:
“Leaving the European Union is likely to have an impact on the workforce in sectors such as catering, construction and agriculture. I see an opportunity here for both prisoners and employers, particularly those operating in these sectors. We’ve got employers struggling to find people. Now is an opportunity to do that.”
Of course, whether things pan out in this way remains to be seen. Yet whether they do or not, Mr Gauke’s comments actually highlight a much broader issue.
The labour market is undergoing a period of profound change; employers are struggling to recruit people with the skills they need; and so new solutions need to be implemented in order to address the growing skills problem. The approach taken in the Education and Employment Strategy actually demonstrates one such solution: the use of localised insight to tailor curricula to the needs of local employers.
This is set to play an important part in the future of prison education, and should certainly play an important part in addressing the wider skills challenges we are facing.
Andy Durman is Managing Director of the Labour Market Insight specialists, Emsi UK.
To find out more about how LMI can help tailor a prison curriculum that is aligned with employer needs, you can download a free report here.