Following on from the Coates review into prison education, the Government has recently released a white paper – Prison Safety and Reform – which setting out their plans for reform of the prison system in England and Wales, including issues relating to raising standards, making prisons safer, and developing leaders and staff.
One of the big factors behind the reforms is the desire to bring reoffending rates down. According to the latest statistics, 25% of adults and 38% of juveniles go on to reoffend, and this is estimated to cost society between £9.5 billion and £13 billion per year. However, there is evidence that shows that gaining employment upon release reduces reoffending rates, and as such ensuring that offenders are given the best chance to gain employment is crucial.
Greater Governor Autonomy
One of the central ways in which the paper proposes to tackle this issue is by granting a far greater degree of autonomy to prison governors than they currently have. According to the document, governors are currently “held back by a system that is highly complex and centralised” with “tens of thousands of pages of instructions covering every conceivable aspect of prison life.” One of the main pledges in the report is therefore to give greater empowerment to prison governors, putting them “at the centre of all services in prison by devolving budgets and control, and providing them with the levers they need to hold other providers to account.”
Amongst other things, this will include greater authority over their prison’s education provision, so that it might be shaped to better align with local needs. As stated in point 38, the reforms are intended to:
- Give governors authority to do their own workforce planning and decide what structures best meet their local needs
- Give governors greater power over service provision in their prison, devolving control over education, work, family ties, offender behaviour and resettlement programmes, and greater influence over healthcare provision [our emphasis added]
Local Needs Are Currently Not Being Met
One of the reasons for this change in structure is the acknowledgement that the present system of skills provision in prisons is failing to meet actual labour market needs. And so although the paper commends what is currently learnt by prisoners as being “valuable experience of basic employability requirements like turning up every day, punctuality, and delivering timely, good quality services and products which meet customer expectations,” it goes on to say that:
“…too much of the work and training we provide in prisons is outdated in today’s economy and does not meet local labour needs.”
The solution, according to the authors of the paper, is for:
“A fundamental shift in approach so we are focused on preparing offenders for future employment in modern jobs. We need to provide prisoners with skills for which there is a real demand from employers.”
This chimes perfectly with what we have been saying for some time, which is that employability is not simply about preparing a person for employment, but also about whether the skills they learn are really needed in the local labour market. If not, then it could be that they are learnt in vain.
Meeting Local Employer Demand
To rectify this situation, the paper suggests that devolving more authority to the governors of each prison will enable better engagement with what is really needed in each local area, and the tailoring of the skills that are taught in prisons to meet those needs:
“We want all of our prisons to follow suit to equip prisoners with skills that they can put to use to enter the labour market, whatever it looks like when and wherever they are released. Giving governors greater autonomy over decisions made in prisons will allow them to target training and work in prisons to match more closely the needs of the local labour market.”
This has two big implications. For governors, they will have both the autonomy and the opportunity to align the skills learnt in their prison with labour market demand, the incentive to do so coming from the fact that the more they can do this, the greater the chance people leaving their prisons will have of finding employment, which in turn could well lead to lower rates of offending.
But it also means that organisations that are currently providing educational services to prisons, and those who might look to in the future as the market is opened up, will also have a big incentive to show that their proposed offer meets local labour market demand.
Local Data Will be Key
Given the above, one thing we can say with certainty is that local labour market insight should have a crucial part to play. This is acknowledged in the report, when it says:
“Governors will be encouraged to work with local employers and use data on the local labour market gaps to choose the right vocational training to help offenders into employment…” [our emphasis added]
The key word here is local. The majority of prisoners finish their sentences in a prison close to their home, and so if they are to have the optimum chance of finding employment, the prison needs to be aware of the labour market needs at that granular, local level.
The need is not therefore for generic national data, or even broad regional data, but data which is granular enough to delve down into the particulars of the local area, and which can identify specific occupational demand at that level. Not only this, but the data needs to be able to provide forecasts at this granular level, going out over a number of years into the future, so that both the prisons and training providers can plan provision well in advance.
This approach is not merely theoretical. Emsi is currently partnering with one provider – Milton Keynes College – to provide them with exactly this type of localised, granular data, which they are using in the prisons they are involved in to align their provision with local needs, and also as a means of facilitating better employer engagement. You can read more about this in our case study here.
Prison Reform and Safety recognises that the current top-down approach in the prison system is hampering the ability of governors to act autonomously, and that one of the side-effects of this is that prisons are not effectively aligned with local employer demand. The consequence of this is that many people are exiting the system with the wrong skills, which makes it more likely that they will not find paid employment. Statistically speaking, this increases the chances of them reoffending.
The proposals in the paper relating to greater autonomy for prison governors, combined with the recognition that provision needs to be better mapped to local employment demand, are intended to help prisoners learn the skills that will make them more objectively employable, and so – it is hoped – less likely to reoffending.
Granular labour market insight has a big part to play in this, with data functioning as a common language between the prison, the education provider, plus other key, local agencies, enabling them to work together to ensure that the skills that are taught are the skills that are needed, so increasing the chances of prisoners entering the workplace soon after completing their sentence.
We will shortly be posting a case study of how effective use of Emsi data helped Novus to win the highly contested contract to deliver education at HMP Berwyn, which is due to open next year. In the meantime, if you would like to explore this further, contact Andy Durman at email@example.com