Sodexo-run HMP Forest Bank is the first prison in England and Wales to offer all new Prison Custody Officers (PCOs) the opportunity to work towards an apprenticeship. It’s one of the ways we’re taking a positive lead in recruiting and retaining people who share our commitment to social value and reducing reoffending rates.

The 13-month apprenticeship was launched in May 2018 and results in a nationally accredited standard - a Level 3 in Custody and Detention. The Sodexo Justice team at HMP Forest Bank was a ‘trail blazer’ in its development, working as part of a think tank alongside HMPSS, Serco, G4S and Personal Track Safety (PTS) Training Academy to set the course criteria.

The apprenticeship is designed to equip new PCO recruits with the necessary skills and grounding for a long and successful career in a custodial environment. In the first 12 months, over 100 new PCOs coming in to HMP Forest Bank have signed up.

“We want to attract and keep the best talent,” said Mark Millin, part of a four-strong learning and development team at the prison. “We have already reviewed our pay scale and introduced a strengths-based recruitment initiative which allows us to profile the core characteristics and attitudes we look for in candidates applying for this demanding job. The apprenticeship builds on these and ensures we then equip all new recruits with the support and training they need to go on to be a successful PCO with Sodexo.”

The apprenticeship aligns to Sodexo’s existing in-house training with oversight from PTS and, ultimately, Ofsted. It involves a comprehensive programme mixing both classroom and on-the-job training including:

  • Developing key worker skills to interact with offenders
  • Health, fire and food safety
  • Prison service orders and instructions
  • Keeping people safe in custody, including working with vulnerable individuals
  • Security and counter terrorism awareness
  • Better awareness and understanding of departments around the prison, and how officers work with them to best enable rehabilitation
  • Personal protection, control and restraint to keep staff, visitors and residents safe.

These elements form part of a structured 10-week training programme which is then followed by monthly reviews and assessments leading up to the accreditation after 13 months.

“PCOs spend the first two weeks in the classroom and then in week three they join the teams on the wings for one-to-one live job shadowing and on-the-job learning,” explained Mark. “This is where the learning comes into sharp focus and we see how people react to the real demands of the job.

“We then switch cohorts between classroom and practical sessions for the remainder of the 10 weeks.”

Once a trained PCO joins the wing team, further on-the-job training and a monthly review with their line manager help ensure additional needs are met. “We’ve moved away from the ‘Here are your keys, get on with the job’ attitude of the past, to make the transition from classroom to residential wing as smooth and supportive as possible,” said Mark. “If something is affecting a PCO or they’re struggling with any aspect of the job they can air it and we can arrange the support they need. It also helps us assess their suitability and progress.”

Feedback from the first recruits has proved positive. Kevin was a PCO at another prison over 10 years ago but left to take a job for a lift company in mechanics and wiring. He missed the job and was keen to return.

“I’ve learned more about interpersonal skills. I’d forgotten things about the role and I’m drawing down new skills,” Kevin said. “The job itself has changed massively - I’ve had training on recovery to help residents with substance misuse, and equipment used to respond to incidents.

“I definitely couldn’t have gone straight back into the job of a PCO without doing this course. I had good experience in the past but nothing to show for it. I’m enjoying going back to the start and adding formal skills.”

The programme is now being rolled out to other Sodexo run prisons - HMP Peterborough, HMP Northumberland and HMP Bronzefield.

May 10, 2019

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