There are important issues to consider regarding the children of parents who are in prison. This article gives advice as to what educational support can be put in place and the role that some SENCOs might play in coordinating this

The prison population has increased to record levels and there are now estimated to be over 150,000 children with an imprisoned parent. Given these numbers, almost all school rolls will include prisoners’ children. Currently there is no designated adult within the school community to coordinate their support. Consequently it is likely that this task will fall within the brief of the SENCO.

It is widely recognised that this area has received little attention in recent years and is significantly under-researched and under-funded by the DCSF. Furthermore, ‘Only 3% of all local authorities’ Strategic Children and Young People Plans mention prisoners’ children’ (Association of Prisoners’ Families, 2006) yet over 7% of each school population will experience the imprisonment of a parent at some point during their time in school.

The Every Child Matters agenda is central to policies in all schools yet the needs of this group of children fail to feature significantly on either the national or local agenda.

The Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE)

This under-researched area has now been addressed in the recent Resource Guide 11: Children of Prisoners – Maintaining Family Ties (April 2008).

SCIE was established by the government in 2001 in order ‘to improve social care services for adults and children in the United Kingdom by identifying good practice and helping to embed it in everyday social care provision.’

The objective of the guide is to make recommendations and provide contact details and resources to those working in this field (including those working in the education system). The guide is soon to be supplemented by a set of e-learning training tools which will ‘provide ideas and models for developing your practice.’

In the following sections an attempt will be made to explore some of the implications for SENCOs and discuss possible support strategies that may be relatively easily established within the school setting.

Identification 

The guide identifies the absence of a ‘trigger’ mechanism which would operate to inform the school at the point at which a parent is imprisoned. This is a central weakness which must be addressed if any real progress is to be made. In the words of the guide, ‘schools should identify a member of staff with responsibility for liaison and development of relationships with local prisons and probation.’

If schools do learn of a parent’s imprisonment, this is likely to be from one of a number of possible sources  –  from the other parent or carer, the local authority (if a child is being ‘looked after’), from a friend or member of the local community or even from the child themselves. 
Each source has its inherent weaknesses and is therefore unreliable.

  1. The second parent may, for reasons of embarrassment, distress or the desire for confidentiality, find it very difficult to approach the school and share this information.
  2. The communication difficulties between schools and local authority children’s services are well documented and would appear to be variable throughout the country. Consequently, they cannot be relied upon in these sensitive situations.
  3. Clearly it would be inappropriate to rely on the chance of receiving information from a member of the local community. Such information may well be inaccurate, incomplete and possibly confusing.
  4. A child may find it difficult  to bring their parent’s imprisonment to the attention of the school, not knowing who to talk to and even if able to do so would be unlikely (particularly at primary school age) to be able to provide the necessary details, for example, length of sentence and identity and location of the prison.

Strategies

  • Expand existing communication frameworks with parents, or if these not do not already exist, consider the development of a short leaflet with a slip attached, encouraging parents to note down their difficulty and submit it to the appropriate member of staff who can then take some action.
  • Seek to identify a responsible officer (for example a specialist social worker) with a view to ensuring that the school are informed when a parent is imprisoned, where this information is made available to them.
  • Use circle time to remind children that they can communicate their problems/concerns in a number of different ways.
  • Try developing the use of a ‘worry box’ within the classroom where children can note down anything that is troubling them and the teacher can then follow this up privately with the child.

Ongoing support

As the guide emphasises, ‘Schools should be seen as integral to the process [of] supporting children of prisoners…’

At a practical level, some children will feel able to discuss the situation with their peers, class teacher or other adults. Others will find this impossible. Trying to continue ‘normally’ can result in a significant change in behaviour, including becoming withdrawn, angry or aggressive.

The Prison Service currently offers a limited number of support services to families with a parent in prison. This varies widely across prisons and includes family days, where visiting children can be involved in a range of activities from homework to games.

Storybook Dads is a charitable scheme now in place across 50 prisons throughout the country, allowing fathers an opportunity to read and record a story (with music and sound effects) and send it to their child. These support mechanisms can soften the impact of the traumatic events on a child who has little contact with an imprisoned parent.

However, for those children not receiving support or whose other parent feels unwilling or unable to be involved, the role of the school becomes vital.

Strategies
Many schools now have support groups for bereavement/loss/divorce. Schools may wish to consider extending these to children who have ‘lost’ a parent to prison. These sessions could be an opportunity to talk but also to engage in activities with peers in a similar position. Attempt to maintain as regular contact as is possible with the remaining parent/carer to monitor behaviour and look for signs of significant distress.Provide children with the time and opportunity to write letters, stories or draw pictures for their parent.

Ensure class teachers are aware of occasions when children are absent for prison visits – thus creating an atmosphere where children are not required to explain repeatedly. Visiting is already stressful and can involve long and difficult journeys, since many prisoners serve sentences at some distance from their homes.

Communication with the imprisoned parent

This is an area around which there is currently very little research. Often, a parent will learn of the progress of their child through their partner or not at all. However, it is the right of all parents to access this information and the duty of schools to share it. As the guide emphasises ‘Schools should involve the imprisoned parent in a child’s schooling, for example, send in reports on progress.’

The guide highlights the importance of sharing educational information with the imprisoned parent and involving them in the educational life of their child. This is known to assist the rehabilitation process and is more likely to lead to successful and long term outcomes after release.

Strategies

  • Where possible, ask the partner to share this information when they next make a prison visit.
  • Consider providing information in alternative formats for example, in a shortened form, recorded on tape/CD.
  • It may even be possible to explore the possibility of arranging some telephone contact between the imprisoned parent and the class teacher.

Implications for school policy/training

Awareness
The guide emphasises the importance of ‘appropriate training and awareness-raising’ in all schools. It goes on to highlight the ‘lack of awareness among staff working in social care, education and health. Guidelines, training tools and practical materials, particularly for multi-agency working, have all been identified as requirements to fill the gaps in knowledge and ensure a better response to the issues.’ In the light of this, schools would need to consider the very real benefits of providing a short programme of awareness raising for new and existing staff.

Schools can access resources from a range of charitable and voluntary organisations for use in the training support process. A particularly interesting example is provided by Action for Prisoners’ Families in the form of a DVD, Homeward Bound, which acts out the experiences, thoughts and fears of a family where the father is due for release from prison. The SCIE website describes it as ‘a thought-provoking tool for training.’ However, most families, busy with attempting to cope with everyday realities of their situation, are likely to be unaware of this support. Schools are well placed to provide liaison with and contact details for, some of these key support networks.

Information pack
Schools may wish to consider developing an information pack that is available for parents. This could contain information leaflets, contact details of some key organisations and a list of existing support, both within the school and externally.

Named /designated person
The SCIE recommends a designated person within each school, responsible for liaising with local prisons and probation services and the arrangement, when necessary, of appropriate training for staff members. Given existing staffing constraints, some schools may extend the role of the SENCO, who already has an overarching brief of support for children having additional needs. However, it may be more effective for the SENCO to retain an overview, with another member of staff being trained for the role.

Children and young people’s plans
Schools need to be aware of the children and young people’s plan for their LA and to familiarise themselves with any implications relating to this vulnerable group. However, it appears that very few have included children of prisoners within this plan, despite the significance of this section of the school population. 

It is, on the other hand, encouraging to note the attempts of some LAs  to address these issues.  The guide cites Gloucester as an example of good practice, highlighting their ‘policy… to ensure there is some communication between prison and schools’ through their ‘Parent in Prison’ policy. 

The SCIE Guide 11 provides a timely reminder of the important issues surrounding the needs of children with imprisoned parents and the urgent requirement for action by a range of social welfare agencies, not least schools. The Children Act 2004 places a responsibility on us all to work together towards meeting every child’s needs and the Common Assessment Framework now requires coordinated action of the type discussed within the guide.

At a wider level, it is important to acknowledge the implications of the guide for other areas of public policy. It is well recognised that, in addition to the undoubted benefits that children can derive from contact with an imprisoned parent, (their right to which is in any event enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child) improving familial contacts and involvement is among the most effective strategies for reducing the incidence of reoffending and thus re-incarceration.

Further information

  • Action for Prisoners’ Families

Helen O’Keeffe is a senior lecturer in primary education at the Faculty of Education, Edge Hill University

Category: