Teachers put behind bars to foster empathy with prison-affected kids

A pioneering Scottish scheme aims to help teachers better support the 27,000 pupils with a parent in prison

Schoolteachers have been put behind bars to experience what it is like for a child to visit a parent in prison.

The scheme, organised by the Scottish Prison Service and charity Families Outside, aims to help teachers and school staff support Scotland’s estimated 27,000 pupils affected by a parent’s imprisonment.

Such is the interest among teachers that I’m lucky to get a place on the session at Barlinnie prison in Glasgow, as the last visit was five times oversubscribed. The project has also attracted interest from prison governors in England, Wales and Australia as research shows that keeping prisoners and their children in contact reduces the chances of re-offending.

“It opens up a world that teachers often haven’t thought about”

We are left waiting at the start of the tour – mimicking the typical experience of a visiting child – and are then subjected to a thorough search and drug inspection, before proceeding through the countless locked doors of this Victorian institution.

Sarah Roberts, children and families support manager for Families Outside, devised the visits when she was a teacher who went to see a pupil’s mother in prison and realised how crucial the link is between school, prison and home.

She says: “When the teachers visit the prison, they feel it like a child feels it. There is something about the experience that is really powerful: it opens up a world that teachers often haven’t thought about.”

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Roberts believes communication is essential, as children who are not told a parent is in prison are more likely to struggle with that absence than those who are informed, while schools will have an explanation as to why a pupil’s behaviour may suddenly change.

At present, schools are not automatically told a child’s parent has been imprisoned, although according to Roberts children have said that it helped them to know that a teacher was aware of the situation, as they felt they could confide in a trusted adult.

The feedback from pupils and their parents has been positive. One school in the Highlands has created a video link with a prison in central Scotland to allow a pupil to talk with his father.

One child told the charity: “I liked visiting mum with my teacher, it helped me and it was good for mum ‘cause she knew what was happening,” while a mother commented: “I like being able to speak with my son’s teacher and be able to help with his education.”