From education to employment

Why real-world training has never been more important for those behind bars

Kirstie Donnelly MBE, CEO, City & Guilds

Getting a job is one of the single most important factors in preventing former prisoners from reoffending once they leave prison. Being employed provides them with the opportunity to earn money in a lawful way and make new connections. And at its simplest level, skills change lives.

But few people actually go on to find meaningful employment after release – often because they don’t have the skills they need. In fact, a recent report from the House of Commons Education Committee stated: “The proportion of former prisoners in employment one year after release is just 17%.

When we also factor the desperate labour shortage right now, what a waste of talent to not see ex-offenders as part of that talent pipeline. And the more that can be done to help someone in prison transition directly into a job as they leave because they are given the right access to skills whilst still inside, is a win win.

The reasons that so many ex-prisoners find themselves without a job are complex and multi-faceted. They include the stigma of having a criminal record, having little formal work experience and poor levels of literacy and numeracy, coming out of prison with addiction issues that have not been addressed, and homelessness when they get out.

However, a lot of these issues come back to the simple fact of lack of access to high quality prison education whilst they are incarcerated, meaning many are unable to improve their skills and live a better life when they leave prison. The pandemic worsened the situation, particularly in the vocational education sector where closures of workshops and other places of work and training significantly limited prisoners’ ability to develop vocational and employment skills.

That’s a key reason why the City & Guilds Foundation launched the Future Skills Commission for Prisons. We support inspiring organisations who make a marked difference in helping offenders gain worthwhile skills that set them up for success.

Below are three key ways to help offenders increase their chances of finding work after leaving prison:

Get the skills training right and make it more personal to what offenders want and have the potential to do.

This starts with giving prisoners greater access to technology. As the Education Committee report states:

The prison population does not have internet access. The majority of prisons in England and Wales do not have the cabling or hardware to support broadband. The lack of controlled and secure access to educational digital resources is a significant barrier to learning. It is stifling opportunity for improvement through education and leaving prisoners unprepared for the real world, lacking the digital skills they need for employment and life skills, and reducing their likelihood of reoffending.”

One way we’re combating that is the City & Guilds SmartScreen. This provides high quality online teaching and learning support for tutors, learners and assessors of City & Guilds qualifications. Currently those prisons with a SmartScreen can access learning via a tutor, however we’re working with Novus at the moment to explore how it would be possible for prisoners to be able to log in directly (and safely).

We’re also working with other organisations to offer virtual reality/ AI experiences for prisoners who are unable to secure temporary release.

In addition to increasing technology, prisons need to incentivise training. As Novus’ Peter Cox recently pointed out in FE News:

There are even disincentives for prisoners to engage in education. In most cases they are required to choose between using their out-of-cell time for education or work. They are paid more for carrying out jobs such as cleaning, cooking, recycling, waste processing and laundry than they are for engaging in education. As a result, many prisoners never set foot in a classroom.

That’s why it’s great to see one of the recommendations of the Education Committee report is to make sure education pay is equal to the pay for prison work. Make training an attractive path.

Match ex-offenders with the right skills and potential to jobs where there is an economic need and potential for growth.

When training is focused and useful, and support is personal and meaningful, jobs are more likely to be successful and long-lasting.

Like the work of Groundwork UK, a federation of charities that emphasise practical community action to improve environments.

We’re supporting them in their work to help offenders in UK prisons develop skills in three crucial areas: construction, carbon literacy/ green skills, and employability.

Groundwork is working directly with employers in the communities where the prisons are located – for maximum impact. And the programmes are developed in partnership with key industry employers such as Laing O’Rourke.

That way, employers can work directly with the prisoners and see work ethic in action, said Venetia Knight, Head of Employment & Enterprise at Groundwork UK.

“Some employers want to work with us as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Venetia said. “But more frequently, employers are genuinely looking to address industry skill shortages. They realise you have to cast your net wide if you’re going to get the right skills in an employee-driven market. It’s a definite shift from when I started doing this work a decade ago.”

These employers are involved in every aspect of training the prisoners – from teaching skills to even conducting mock interviews.

“The idea is these employers can see a spark in someone that they might want to take on and have conversation with after release,” Venetia said. “That first-hand involvement takes some of the stigma away for the employers, and they get a better understanding of where some of these people are coming from and what they’re capable of.”

Learning these vital skills helps former prisoners improve their own circumstances, fill industry skills gaps, and improve their communities with sought-after green skills.

Provide ongoing personal support before and after release.

Another way to prevent reoffending is setting up people to be successful on the job.

One great example of this is The Clink, which delivers City & Guilds qualifications in the catering industry within prisons.

The charity has direct links with restaurants and actively finds placements for the prisoners. And when the former prisoners are released, mentors help them with practical life skills like setting up a bank account.

No surprise then that graduates from The Clink are almost half as likely to reoffend.

And look at St Giles, a charity that uses expertise and lived experience to empower people who are not getting the help they need, held back by poverty, exploited, abused, dealing with mental health problems, caught up in crime or a combination of these issues.

A big part of the charity’s work is helping these disadvantaged people gain basic work skills that most professionals take for granted, said Carol Thomson, Quality and Assessment Manager from St Giles.

“Our peer advisors often need to learn really practical things, like how to send an email,” Carol said. “If you’ve been in prison for the last 15 years, you probably don’t know how to use a smartphone. And since our peer advisors haven’t had much exposure to technology in prison, it can be really overwhelming for them when they are suddenly expected to know how to join a Zoom meeting.”

Carol explained one peer advisor, who was recently released from prison, kept missing scheduled appointments even after verbally agreeing to them. The charity soon realised he had no idea how to accept an emailed meeting invite and add it to his online calendar.

“Success outside of prison is all about learning and using the skills that people use in the everyday workplace,” Carol said. “If you can give a disadvantaged person those skills, you level the employment playing field.”

Levelling the playing field

Meaningful employment can help people thrive outside of prison. And to make that happen, more needs to be done inside prisons to give people the right skills that employers need.

The Education Committee report is a brilliant spotlight on the ways prison education can be improved. And so many organisations across the UK are ready and willing to help. But obviously it will need to be a collaborative effort between government, employers, charities, and skills providers.

Together, we can identify and activate practical ways for offenders to build skills and get a job upon release ensuring also a more productive society.

By Kirstie Donnelly MBE, Chief Executive, City & Guilds

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