What is the Unlocked Grads programme?
According to the website for University of Suffolk (10 September 2018) :
“Unlocked Graduates is a two-year programme and students who complete the programme are awarded an MSc in Leadership and Custodial Environments from the University of Suffolk”
When you look past all the ‘blurb’, in a nutshell, the programme starts as a Summer Institute comprising two week’s training as a prison officer and the beginning of a Master’s degree, followed by a two-week placement in a prison and finishes with two more weeks training. The taught modules at the Summer Institute leading to Prison Officer Entry Level Training (POELT) are based at the University of Suffolk, Ipswich.
It’s especially surprising to see that it is positioned as “a prestigious programme with influential supporters” when it is based here as the University is ranked 128 out of 131 Universities listed by The Complete University Guide.
Advice given for recruitment: “Fundamentally they need to be made of the right stuff to survive on the landings from Day 1… only a fairly ruthless and demanding selection process will guarantee you have the right people”
Part of the interview process includes having an interview with a former prisoner, but questions have been raised as to how this would be perceived and if unskilled interviewers could get the best out of the candidates.
The 2017 Cohort
The 2017 cohort started in Summer 2017 with placements in HMP Brixton, Coldingley, Downview, High Down, Isis and Wandsworth.
I was invited to sit in on a training session at the Summer Institute in 2017. I spoke with staff members to get a feel and understanding of the programme. I had a one-to-one with Natasha Porter, CEO of Unlocked Grads.
But I came away with so many questions.
Why were those prisons selected and why were they all in the South of England?
So how can the safety of these young novice trainees be assured? In the latest Government Annual Prison Statistics, it shows that Brixton is rated 1 for safety with Wandsworth and Isis rated 2.
Again, in the same report, looking at stats for Purposeful Activity, Brixton, Isis and Wandsworth are rated 1; that’s an awful lot of people likely to be stuck in their cell, frustrations brewing, leading to mental health issues. Not forgetting the domino effect upon families of prisoners and families of staff.
So that’s the prisoners but what about the staff in these prisons.
Staff sickness for Wandsworth shows that 5918 days were lost in the 12 months to 31st March 2018 that’s on average 12.4 days lost per FTE. High Down is not much better with 4146 days lost in 1 year on average 10.4 days lost per FTE.
Whilst it is unclear why so many days are lost to sick leave, you can imagine that many of these sick days are as a result of the stress placed upon the officers, the increased violence on the wings, inhaling psychoactive substances and the exhaustion.
But if there are such acute staff shortages how is replacing experienced members of staff with newly qualified Unlocked Grads going to make a positive difference?
Andrea Albutt, President of the Prison Governors Association spoke out last year and said:
“large numbers of new recruits can actually add to the instability in prisons rather than improve it”
So, what exactly is this programme wanting to achieve?
We are told that the Summer 2017 candidates in the 1st cohort all passed their POELT training. Was the bar set too low, it makes you wonder? However, the first cohort 100% pass rate did not include those who dropped out early on, after their first visit to a prison.
One of the first sponsors wrote: “This is clearly an incredibly challenging leadership programme. Unlocked Grads will have to develop advanced communication skills, diplomacy and resilience as well as the creative entrepreneurial flair to bring new ideas to prisons. These are the skills I look for in my sector.” (Sir Martin Sorrell, former CEO of WPP).
Sounds all well and good, but there’s no scope for entrepreneurial flair inside a prison; it’s a process driven role, dependent on regime and written Prison Service Instructions (PSI’s).
The candidates didn’t appear to be encouraged to stay once they acquired their master’s degree.
This seems incredibly short-sighted of the MoJ. Why are they investing in these grads yet encouraging them to move on after two years and not retaining them?
Sam Gymiah, the then Prisons Minister wrote:
“Some bright, passionate & capable recruits joining the prison service to help fix our prisons. Well done @unlockedgrads” (Twitter, 21 August 2017)
Hardly able to “fix our prisons” just through this two-year scheme.
I was informed by Natasha Porter that these grads were not included in the 2,500 new staff members that were being recruited.
The 2018 Cohort
This year 105 candidates attended the Summer Institute and yet again Ipswich was suddenly the place to be, a tourist attraction for anyone in the ‘Justice arena’. Now that HMP Berwyn in no longer ‘flavour of the month’, Ipswich appears to be the place to be seen.
Between 29th July and 6th September, guest speakers galore appeared at the University to give talks: from Gethin Jones to Michael Spurr to Erwin James.
Recently, when visiting the Ipswich Waterfront, I spotted dozens of mainly young men and women dressed in standard issue prison officer uniform complete with boots. Some were hiding their epaulettes with their hands and others showed their key chains.
It was the next instalment of the Unlocked Grads programme.
They were milling around on a lunch break (see photo) so I went and had a chat. I asked how they were finding the course and we briefly discussed the crisis within the prisons, as the HMIP report on Birmingham had just been published.
One of the 2018 Cohort said: “Oh but that’s just the media,” dismissing the squalor, violence and drugs in prisons as if it was some sort of fallacy.
Seriously, are they being taught about the reality of what is happening inside prisons?
Another eagerly said: “We are going to do something different; we will be on the landings, but it will be based on rehabilitation.”
If the Unlocked Grads are focusing on rehabilitation as “something different” then what is everyone else doing now?
And how many of them will stay long enough to make this “something different” happen?
If they are going onto the landings and have been told they will be focusing specifically on rehabilitation how will that go down with other members of staff, when they are so stressed that even the minimum requirements are hard to achieve?
Will there be a clash in their work expectations, disruption or problems with team dynamics, an “us and them”?
What people are saying about Unlocked Grads
I asked a former Prison Officer about his thoughts on this scheme, this is what he said, word for word:
“Hi Faith, my feelings are that most of them will be eaten alive by inmates, as grads won’t be from the same background as most inmates. A lot of grads would have been brought up with a “silver spoon in their mouths” and inmates will spot this a mile off and some inmates will sense this and will make their lives hell, I can’t see grads staying in the job for long, HMP need to employ people who are over 25 years old with some life experience”
I also spoke to someone who has been working in Education in prisons for years. They told me:
“The YO’s will make mincemeat of these university kids. And the older men will not like being told what to do by a kid. The whole enterprise seems absolutely mad, ill-thought out and with absolutely no thought given to basic – really basic – psychology”
Another quote, this time from a senior civil servant within the MoJ, who told me:
“the ideological approach is now wearing very thin”
One of the 2018 Cohort told me Unlocked Grads have a contract for 6 years and they described the 2017 Cohort as “guinea pigs”.
A few said they were going to be working in HMP Wandsworth, and they seemed somewhat amazed that I could describe in clear detail the layout, and the condition I personally encountered there at Wandsworth on numerous visits I had made.
Yet not one of them asked me who I was.
Curiously, I was told by a speaker at ICPA 2017 that, in his plenary address Michael Spurr said, without actually name-dropping Unlocked Grads, that he didn’t believe the principle of employing grads was the answer to the issue.
Given that Mr Spurr was invited to speak at Unlocked Grads Summer Institute in front of both the 2017 and the 2018 Cohorts, this is utterly remarkable and serves to remind us that Unlocked Grads doesn’t appear to have universal acceptance – even within HMPPS.
Overall, it all appears to be secretive, behind closed doors; many in the Justice sector I speak to about it is saying the same.
On 9th September, I listened to the BBC report by Danny Shaw about the Unlocked Grads and questioned whether it was advertising? Where was the balance, where was the incisive journalism we have come to expect from BBC News’ home affairs correspondent?
In his report, Danny Shaw said: “Governors have found it hard to find and retain staff.”
Governors need to find and retain staff, right, but are the Unlocked Grads planning to stick around?
Also, I noticed in that report a focus on ‘Sophie’ from the 2017 Cohort deployed at HMP Coldingley. Half way through the video reportage where it says: ‘Now Sophie is helping to train the next set of recruits’. This seemed a bit odd; how developed is her jail craft after one year and why is someone who is not fully trained themselves, not a qualified trainer or an instructor, doing the training?
Further on in the reportage, Natasha Porter says:
“If you can deescalate a landing full of prisoners…”
That’s a big expectation, placing massive pressure on you as a new recruit.
It appears to me that the Unlocked Grads leadership scheme encourages the participants to see it is a stepping stone to a career elsewhere. This follows the same pattern that has occurred in the MoJ over the last few years with a continuous change of Secretary of State for Justice and Prisons Minister.
Does this just perpetuate the problem of lack of continuity in the Justice sector?
Retention, Retention, Retention
Unlocked Grads Programme purports to fill a gap in frontline prison staff but if these grads walk into other opportunities after 2 years, with other Government departments or with Private sector sponsors, then it defeats the objective of positioning it as anything with real-world ‘Custodial Environments’ credibility.
One young man on the 2nd Cohort said to me he hadn’t made up his mind if he would stay after the two years. Another said:
“I’m going to be Prison Officer for two years”
Therefore, if they are not contributing long-term, are they inadvertently placing a drain on already-scarce resources?
Academic standards and expectations
Unlocked Grads is delivered mainly as an online programme to an MSc with a summer school at the beginning of year one and the chance to write a policy document in the second year.
Job adverts have been posted asking for criminology dissertation supervisors that don’t necessarily have to be academics.
So apparently now we have those that are not trainers, training and those that are not academics supervising academic work at a Masters degree level !
Is it a prison officer training programme or an educational programme?
A member of Unlocked Grads staff said to me last week that the Ministry of Justice will no longer evaluate the programme. So how will it now be evaluated and by whom?
[If the link has been taken down, just click on the image here to read what the job advert said]
The University of Suffolk has been chosen to run this top-flight programme for training prison officers, yet where is any information?
If such a “prestigious” course is being run there why is nothing about it shared with the local press?
Local media were unaware of the start of the second cohort.
Were Sandy Martin MP for Ipswich (in whose constituency the University of Suffolk is located) or Tim Passmore, Suffolk’s Police and Crime Commissioner, invited for the launch?
What is it really all about – filling up desk spaces inside Petty France with Faststreamers?
Or is it even a short-term solution for Prison Officer shortages?
Yes, we do need leadership but that has to come through experience, surely?
Unlocked Graduates is currently incubated within the registered charity called Catch 22 Charity Limited, Charity Number 1124127. It is not a stand-alone charity even though on the Unlocked Grads website it states: “Unlocked is a charity…” (see image below).
It is funded by Unlocked Graduates which is financed by the Ministry of Justice.
In other words, these young people are being offered Master’s level qualifications paid for from the public purse.
This necessitates openness and fully transparency, doesn’t it?
And yet in the Annual Report and Accounts to 31 August 2017 for Catch 22 Charity Limited, Company no. 6577534 there is a simple mention of Unlocked Grads on page 21 and page 25 but there is no reference to the specific activity of Unlocked Grads in Notes to the Accounts, either as restricted funds or as unrestricted funds.
The Unlocked Grads website asserts that:
“The Unlocked Graduates programme was one of the key recommendations of the Coates’ Review of prison education, a report that argued that education needs to be put at the heart of the prison service if Government is serious about the rehabilitation of prisoners.”
I have read the Coates’ Review, and nowhere in the review does it cite that the Unlocked Grads programme was a key recommendation. In fact, the publicly available version of the Coates’ Review doesn’t include the words “Unlocked Graduates” at all, anywhere.
Therefore, this is a misrepresentation of what the review states. Below is the actual recommendation:
A new scheme to attract high calibre graduates to work in prisons for an initial period of two years should be introduced. The role should be as a prison officer with an additional remit to support education at the heart of the prison regime.”
Natasha Porter, CEO of the Unlocked Grads programme, was on the review panel for the Coates’ Review and Dame Sally Coates is on the board for Unlocked Grads.
How very convenient.
The Coates’ Review was published on 18th May 2016 and the Unlocked Grads scheme was launched on 21st Dec 2016. Why are these dates important, shouldn’t this exceptionally rapid time to market be commended?
In normal circumstances, yes, such as in the private sector, but this is Government and we all know that the government rarely, if ever, moves that quickly on justice-related issues. Take for example, the Corston Report ‘A review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system’ from March 2007; on the shelf for over 11 years and counting.
As this is a Government contract, and we have learned they have it for 6 years what was the procurement process and where is the publicly available tender?
I cannot find it on Official Journal of European Union (OJEU). If it was a non-competitive tender, why was only one private-sector provider aware of it? No other educators I have spoken to were ever approached.
Surely nothing is stopping any other private education company from setting up a similar training scheme. BPP University was the first private educator to be granted the ability to award recognised degrees in 2013. What is stopping them, or a similar organisation, coming up with a Graduate programme using prisons?
Launched so quickly after the publication of the Coates’ Review, it is completely out of character for public sector procurement processes to have been satisfied within such a short timescale.
Which leads us to have to question whether prior knowledge played a material part in either the establishing of the Unlocked Grads programme or the inclusion of Recommendation 11, or both, or neither.
Wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Is now the time for a scheme like Unlocked Grads to place quantities of inexperienced officers in the frontline when the Inspectorate have just issued their 4th urgent notification to Secretary of State for Justice?
In the latest urgent notification for HMP Bedford, Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, states:
“A lack of staff and experience undermined the work of the offender management unit.
…77% of available officers had less than one years’ service. There was a corresponding lack of experience at all levels, and it was clear that this was having a significant impact on many areas of prison life”
One young female Unlocked Grad in the 2018 Cohort told me her parents were worried about what she was doing. I’m not surprised, as a parent I would be too.
It made me think why is the Unlocked Grads scheme putting young people’s lives in possible dangerous and hostile surroundings such as HMP Wandsworth after only a few weeks training? They are ill-equipped and not sufficiently trained for what may lie ahead.
We have unskilled interviewers marking candidates on their suitability, we have untrained trainers training the latest cohort, and we have the possibility of non-academics as supervisors for the Master’s dissertation.
In addition, we have a course led by a member of the review panel of the Coates’ Review.
Moreover, was recommendation 11 of the Coates’ Review written to fit the Unlocked Grads Programme or was the Unlocked Grads programme written to fit recommendation 11?
In the public interest, I think we all have the right and duty to question this to assure that Government reports have not been manipulated by private sector commercial interests or non-government organisations.
The question needs to be asked and the answer given, in plain English that everyone can understand.
In reality, very little real information is available in the public domain about the Unlocked Grads programme. In drafting this blog, I have taken great care to gather, collate and corroborate information in which I could personally have sufficient confidence. The objective of this blog is not to criticise any individual but to question the soundness of this programme and the way in which it is conducted. I commend the young people for their ambitiousness and intellect; the issue is not with them. It is with those policy makers, who have approved this programme – they are the ones to whom questions should now be addressed.
SITUATION UPDATE 28 SEPT 2018
Subsequent to publishing this post on 22 September 2018, it has come to my attention that the leading local newspaper East Anglian Daily Times has published not one but two articles about Unlocked Grads.
27 Sept 2018 ‘‘No substance’ to claim uniform policy threatens prison guard trainees‘ by Tom Potter (tweeting as @TomPotterEADT)
28 Sept 2018 ‘Could Netflix’s Orange is the New Black be attracting more British women to become prison officers‘ by Jessica Hill (tweeting as @jessjanehill)
This is an astonishing turn of events. Either Unlocked Grads and University of Suffolk have moved quickly to resolve the question I asked “If such a “prestigious” course is being run there why is nothing about it shared with the local press?” and to dispel concerns of secrecy, or these were pre-scheduled PR pieces.
Either way, it raises more questions.