Rods, poles and perches

The announcement of 10,000 new prison places and increased use of stop and search by the Prime Minister made me think about what he might announce for education once he goes beyond the financial carrot necessary to shore up our under-financed education system.

With such an ardent Brexiter in charge, could he direct that the curriculum change on 1st November to throw out any reference to the decimal system and witness a return to imperial weights and measures? Could the government mandate that temperature again be expressed in degrees Fahrenheit rather than Centigrade, and kilometres be banished form the language once again? Any other summer and these might seem silly season stories, but not in 2019.

I have no doubt that schools would rather than spend the £2 billion to build new prison places that this cash was spent on youth services, more cash for special schools and strategies to reduce exclusions and off-rolling by schools. This could include better provision of professional development courses to help teachers educate challenging pupils rather than exclude them. Such measures might obviate the need for building new prisons.

I do not want to return to the dark days of the Labour government, just over a decade ago, when, at any one time, around 4,000 young people were being locked up: the number now is closer to 1,000 despite the issues with knife crime that like drugs issues is now seeping across the country at the very time when it seems to have plateaued in London.

More police and other public service staff are necessary for society to function effectively, but the aim must be on prevention and deterrents not on punitive action and punishment. Criminals that know they are likely to be caught may well think twice: those that know detection rates are abysmal will consider the opportunity worth the risk.

The State also needs to spend money on education and training of prisoners as well as rehabilitation of offenders after the end of their sentence; especially young offenders. The recent report from the Inspector of Prisons makes as depressing reading as the study highlighted in a previous post of the background of many young people that are incarcerated for committing crimes. If we cannot even work to prevent the smaller number of young people imprisoned these days from re-offending what hope is there if society starts to lock up more young people again?

A recurrent theme of this blog has been about the design of the curriculum for the half of our young people not destined for higher education. Here the new government could do something sensible by recognising that schools have accepted that the EBacc offers too narrow a curriculum to offer to every pupil and to encourage a post-14 offering that provides for the needs of all pupils. This might be achieved by encouraging schools and further education to work together.

A start might be made by increasing the funding for the 16-18 sector and identifying what was good about the idea of University Technical Colleges and Studio Schools and why the experiment has not worked as its promoters had hoped.



Children with a parent in prison

Sir Cliff Richard and the broadcaster Paul Gambaccini have recently raised the issue of anonymity for those under investigation for historic sex crime, but not at that point either arrested or charged. Without entering into that debate, it is worth pointing out that there are other groups affected by the criminal justice system where a lack of anonymity can cause them problems in society.

One such group is the children of offenders. Those offenders under the age of eighteen are provided with anonymity in almost all cases. However, that protection does not really apply to children of adult offenders. Communities can read in their local press, where it still exists, or on social media of a father of a family of four living in such and such a location and easily identify the children. These children can then be easily identified by their peers at school and become subject to bullying and other torments.

Children Heard and Seen is a charity started in Oxfordshire and where, until my term of office ended, I was a trustee. The charity works with the children with adults in prison, often fathers, but not always, and in a few cases both parents. Until recently these children were the forgotten sufferers from the workings of the criminal justice system: many, especially boys, went on to commit crimes in later life.

I have written about the work of the charity before on this blog, but I thought it helpful to provide it with another mention, especially since they have this summer been awarded Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, one of six groups in Oxfordshire so recognised.

You can find out more about the charity and its work either on its Facebook page at or by visiting its website at

The following has been taken from the web site of Children Hears and Seen.

On Friday 14th June 2019, Children Heard and Seen and MyTime jointly hosted the first children’s voice conference for children with a parent in prison, ‘Our Time To Be Heard‘. The conference was held in the iconic Churchill Rooms at Westminster, and was attended by MPs, policy makers, Peers, academics and journalists. It was entirely devised by the children, who wrote and presented their own speeches, and read out poetry they had written.

The children got the chance to interview HMP Staffordshire’s governor with insightful questions such as “Why aren’t there more family visits?”. Also the opportunity to interview two journalists from the BBC with grilling questions such as “Why does a person’s face, address, second name need to be in the papers? Why does it have to backfire on the children and everyone who knows the person?”. The conference was a great success and brought together children from around the UK who have a parent in prison,

At the end of the conference, the children announced seven calls to action. They identified that they need to be supported, they need to be heard, seen, and have their voices reflected in policy.

There is currently no policy in place which supports children with a parent in prison, even on remand. This conference allowed the children to discuss what should be enforced in national policy to increase their mental health, wellbeing and generally benefit their lives and the lives of other children with a parent in prison. These are seven calls to action decided by children. They are ready for change.

1: Currently when people are sent to prison and it is reported in the media, they print the person’s street name and town. This leaves the remaining family and children extremely vulnerable. We know of families who have had to move due to the abuse they have received after their addresses were published in local and sometimes national press. In Norway, the press are not allowed to print the addresses of offenders if they have children, why can we not do the same in the UK?

2: Allow children to say a proper goodbye to their parent before the end of a visit by providing a ten minute warning of the end of visiting time, as this would reduce stress and trauma not only for the child, but also the prisoner.

3: Family Days are used as a reward for people in prison who have an ‘enhanced status’, meaning people who obey the prison rules. This means that not all children are offered family day visits, and are further punished by not being allowed to have contact with their parent as a result of their parents’ behaviour. These are often held back as punishment to the prisoner, resulting in more punishment for the children. This approach focuses on the parent in prison, punishing children further for actions that are out of their control.

4: Consideration should always be given to the needs of children when a parent is arrested r a search warrant is executed.

5: Pupil Premium was set up to improve the attainment of disadvantaged children. In addition to the rules on free school meals eligibility, all Looked After children and children with a parent in the armed forces are eligible for Pupil Premium or Service Children Premiums. We feel that children with a parent in prison are as disadvantaged as these groups and should therefore be eligible, regardless of income. Changing this would give schools more money to support children with a parent in prison.

6: There are an estimated 312,000 children in the UK with a parent in prison. However there is no record of these children or where they live. Maybe placing them in the same category as ‘looked after children’ for school admissions would make it easier to identify this invisible group and give them support.

7: The last call to action is something all the young people at the conference felt strongly about. They feel fortunate to be supported by Children Heard and Seen, and by MyTime, Families Outside and Nepacs. We all want all children with a parent in prison to have support in their community. There is a desperate lack of funding in this area and very little specialised support available. We believe supporting children affected by parental imprisonment is key to breaking inter-generational offending.

Here are some quotes from our children, talking about what Children Heard and Seen means to them:

  • I love Children Heard and Seen because we do really fun things and I feel good talking about it in the group because it helps me with how I feel. The good thing about it is the places we go to and the things we do together.Kayim, aged 9.
  • This is why we need support like the support from Children Heard and Seen to be happy. Every child should have the support we get from Children Heard and Seen. Leah, aged 8.
  • The charity Children Heard and Seen has helped me realise I am not the only one going through these experiences. Luke, aged 12.
  • I like coming to Children Heard and Seen because when I come here I feel supported and that I can discuss anything with them! Khizr, aged 12.
  • I like Children Heard and Seen because I can talk to other people in the same situation or who had the same situation as me. I feel like I can express my feelings better now than I could before. Thanks to Children Heard and Seen I’m glad that I can be heard and understood. Jasmyn, aged 12.





A parent in prison is not a crime

Although this blog is mostly about education, it does from time to time mention other issues. For the past five years I have been a trustee of the charity Children Heard and Seen, founded in Oxford by an inspirational former social worker, Sarah Burrows. This charity works to mitigate the effects of parental imprisonment on children, young people and their families, aiming to provide quality services for children with a family member in prison.

For far too long these children have been ignored. Next month, a new book will be published by the Waterside Press

The book is a collection of poems and drawings by parents and children affected by imprisonment in the UK and abroad. The poems and images are all original and from open competitions begun in 2018. They address the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of the authors as they express themselves concerning their emotions and experiences. Over a million children and family members are affected by imprisonment in the UK alone and the poems seek to emphasise the sense of loss, deprivation and isolation involved. They also show resilience—and how enforced separation impacts each and every day of the writer’s life.

The joint editors of the collection are, Lucy Baldwin is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at De Montfort University Leicester. She specialises in research surrounding mothering in and after prison and families affected by imprisonment. Ben Raikes is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Huddersfield University. He also works at the Centre for Applied Childhood, Youth and Family Research. Ben has experience as a social worker and probation officer. He runs writing groups in prisons and is a co-founder of the International Coalition for Children with Incarcerated Parents (INCCIP).

The book will cost just £14.95 and comes with free delivery in the United Kingdom.

Latest research suggests that there may be more than 300,000 children of prisoners across the United Kingdom. Earlier this year, Children Heard and Seen was mentioned in evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights at Westminster. The mention is at: as part of Q3.

Sarah from Children Heard and Seen used to be a social worker, and I will ring her up and panic, when I have nothing to panic over. I honestly believe it has stemmed from that.

 Back then, if I had had a charity like Children Heard and Seen, I would not be suffering as I am now. I can give you an example. Unfortunately, my children have recently gone through a similar situation with the father receiving a custodial. Because of Children Heard and Seen, my children were not alienated. They did not know the difference. They did not know that he had gone. They were with a bunch of other children and it felt normal—not that it was normal for a parent to go to prison, but it was normal to feel human and be accepted as a human. It was not so taboo. You are not living their punishment, really. I honestly believe that I and my brother served a bigger sentence than my mum ever received.

I believe these children need support that Society has not offered them. Should you wish to help with the work of the charity, please visit its web site and donate either cash or your time.



Can we halve the number of women in prison?

This blog doesn’t often stray away from education but when it does it generally comments on issues relating to the justice system. This morning Simon Hughes, a Lib Dem government minister in the Ministry of Justice suggested he would like to see the number of women in prison halved from around 4,000 to presumably around 2,000. Is this achievable? Well, it has been achieved with young offenders.

Under the last Labour government the number of under-eighteens in custody hit 3,000 in August 2008. By September 2014 the figure was down to just over 1,000 and the number of males in youth custody actually dipped below the 1,000 mark in October 2014. Now even 1,000 may be too many, but there has been a real achievement on the part of the Youth Justice Board and the courts that has produced this dramatic reduction during the life of this parliament. Admittedly, this has been a period when crime has been falling both nationally and internationally, but that shouldn’t diminish the achievement of the criminal justice system.

Reducing the female prison population may be harder to achieve. Of the 4,000 or so women in custody in the autumn of 2014, about 10% were on remand. Only another 10% were on short sentences of six months or less, so even wiping out the sending to prison of this group wouldn’t achieve the 50% drop the Minister is seeking. And, there are those in this group where the sentence would have been greater but for an early guilty plea and perhaps a reduction in the offence charged between arrest and appearance in court.

So, to reduce the female prison population the Crown Court judges are going to have to cooperate since more than 3,000 of the women in custody are there because a Crown Court judge has sent them to prison. Indeed, more than 25% are serving sentences of four years or more or of an indeterminate length. Add in those with a sentence of 1-4 years and that accounts for more than half the total of women in prison.

Why are they there? 900 are there for crimes of violence, the largest single offence group to generate custodial sentences among women these days. Add in robbery – a violent crime and burglary and you probably account for a third of the women in custody. Interestingly, only 10% of women are there for drug offences and a similar percentage are in prison for theft and handling. Perhaps the group that might be looked at for non-custodial sentences are the 12% or so of the prison population incarcerated for a range of other offences. And, just like men, women between 25 and 49 make up the bulk of the prison population.

Stopping re-offending and preventing offending in the first place are likely to be the key factors in reducing the female prison population, just as they are for men and have been with young offenders. As the Minister points out, many in prison have mental health problems and tacking those through the NHS might well bring reductions in the numbers in custody. Whether Crown Court judges should be ordered to treat women found guilty of offences differently to men guilty of the same offence when it comes to sentencing is a debate worth having. It falls into the same category of whether someone that needs to drive for a living should be able to argue exceptional hardship when faced with a driving ban, as they can and do every day in our courts.


Knife crime: do we need mandatory sentences?

There was a debate on the Today programme this morning about mandatory prison sentences for possession of a bladed instrument – to use the formal legal terminology – carrying a knife to you and me. A mother whose son had been killed while attending a party as a teenager was advocating not just prison for using a knife, but even for just carrying one; presumably as a means of deterring young people from so doing. Simon Hughes as the Minister had a difficult job talking about a policy on mandatory sentences advocated by one of his ministerial colleagues that his party leader has publically disagreed with.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have a personal interest in knife crime for reasons I don’t need to discuss again in this post. However, as I have written in a piece for the Church Times, by coincidence published today, I am opposed to mandatory  prison sentences for carrying a knife or other bladed instrument. Unlike the mother interviewed on the Today programme, who dismissed the courts out of hand, I have more faith in the judiciary and the guidelines set down by the Sentencing Body and the higher courts, including the Supreme Court.

As well as being a victim of a knife crime, I also served for 20 years within the justice system, so I have considered this issue in my mind several times over the past few years. Draconian laws will have some effect. However, fishing is the most popular participation activity for men in this country, and it usually involves carrying a knife. Going on a summer picnic may involve carrying a knife to cut the cheese with or even the bread. Automatic prison sentences for carrying knives in these situations? There would presumably need to be the exception for those carrying on their trade, carpet fitters, chefs, and no doubt those that work in many other occupations and carry knives from place to place. So, perhaps we should just consider banning the carrying of knives by those under the age of eighteen, as we do with the sale of alcohol or cigarettes; and punish both the seller and the purchaser with prison? It would have an effect, but since even some in custody seem adept at creating bladed instruments from what is on hand in prison, it seems that where there is a will there is a way.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I prefer a different approach based upon education and earlier intervention. The Museum of Childhood ran an interesting exhibition on the subject of knife crime some time ago and their very readable booklet can be found at: (link no longer active – September 2018) What is clear is that social media and the internet have allowed those opposed to knife crime the opportunity to spread their messages as much as those that want punitive action.

I don’t condone violence whether with a knife, gun or a fist, but dealing with those with anti-social attitudes just by locking them up doesn’t completely solve the problem.  Compared with a decade ago, knife crime, and many other crimes, seems on a downward trend. I remain to be convinced that harsher sentences will assist in reducing knife crime still further in society.