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Families Outside - Children on probation

Sarah Roberts from the organisation, Families Outside talks about the work they do helping the families of people in prison, and what probationer teachers can do to support children affected by this.

Sarah Roberts, Families Outside

Preparing lesson plans, completing a CPD portfolio, meeting the professional standards – being a Probationer Teacher is a rollercoaster ride from start to finish, with barely a moment to stop and take it all in. But sometimes it’s good to stop and remember that it’s not all about forms; it’s about children. And sometimes it’s about some of the most vulnerable children in our society: those whose parents are in prison.

Take a moment to wonder about the stories behind the children in front of you. Perhaps the quiet, withdrawn girl in the back row witnessed her father being arrested last night. She’ll be in shock having seen him handcuffed and taken away; worried about what might happen to him and whether she’ll see him again; and scared that people will find out and call her names. Or what about that tricky boy who never seems to concentrate for long? Could it be that his challenging behaviour stems from his anger about the fact that his mum is in prison and the sense of grief he feels because he hardly ever sees her due to the long and expensive journey to the prison? And there might be someone in your class who feels guilty about the relief she feels now that an older brother has been arrested, putting an end to stress and tension that became unbearable.

In Scotland every year 27,000 children like these experience the imprisonment of a close relative, and yet teachers often don’t know who they are. Children with a parent in prison face significant challenges including trauma (making it hard for them to learn) and stigma (which can lead to behaviour problems and bullying from others). In effect they serve their own sentence; they are “on probation”; the government website, GOV.UK, describes probation as “serving your sentence but you’re not in prison.” Like their imprisoned parents, these children feel judged by society and cut off from systems of support. They are more likely to come from families with complex needs and are less likely to meet child well-being indicators, putting them at higher risk of mental health issues, harmful behaviour patterns, and ultimately of entering the criminal justice system themselves.

Not once during my own teacher training, nor subsequent career in an Edinburgh high school, were the children of prisoners flagged up as a specific group with particular needs. It was only in supporting three siblings whose mother is serving a long-term sentence that I began to ask why such vulnerable children remain largely overlooked within the school system. Gaining an insight into what they had experienced, and involving their mother in their education, I realised that the outcomes for children affected by imprisonment could, and should, be very different, and that schools have a key role to play in this. I learned that a parent can still have an input into their child’s education, even from behind bars, and that for children one of the most important things they need to know is that they are not alone, and that it is not their fault.

So as you move into thinking about the end of your probation, remember those children whose own (hidden) probation sentences continue. And take heart from the fact that, by showing compassion, and getting alongside them, you could be the very person who makes all the difference.

To find out more about what teachers can do to help children with a close relative in prison, and to read Sarah’s report, The Role of Schools in Supporting Families Affected by Imprisonment, go to www.familiesoutside.org.uk.