Teachers hold the keys to prison

Lucy Hodges

Today's truant could be tomorrow's inmate, according to a book to be launched by Judge Stephen Tumim. Lucy Hodges reports

Schools can make a difference to whether or not people end up in prison, according to Angela Devlin, a former special needs teacher who surveyed 250 inmates in the first study of its kind to be published next week.

More than half of all prisoners said that when they were children nobody checked if they were in school or not. "I think the perception that nobody knows or cares is very important," says Mrs Devlin, whose book, Criminal Classes, is being launched at Holloway Prison by Judge Stephen Tumim, the retiring chief inspector of prisons.

Thirty-nine per cent of the women and 14 per cent of the men in a group of 100 inmates she interviewed reported physical and sexual abuse. But teachers lack the expertise to deal with it, she says. They need training in what to look for, as well as help to enable them to spot physical disabilities and emotional disorders.

Prisoners said they missed a great deal of secondary schooling. They remembered large classes, bullying and feeling set apart from other children. And they recalled teachers who were boring, their lessons irrelevant as well as dull.

A 33-year-old female inmate said: "I've found very few teachers with any enthusiasm or imagination. It's always the same; if young teachers start off keen, they're soon pulled down by the rest of the staff because they don't want anything to change, nothing to rock the boat. Most teachers can't be bothered. "

Angela Devlin has been interested in the roots of offending since childhood. Her teacher father worked at a borstal outside Cardiff and she has taught trawlermen's children in north-east Scotland where a leather strap or tawse was a common prop for harassed teachers - though not for her.

When the family moved to Kent Mrs Devlin became a home tutor, teaching children excluded from school. She encountered teenagers who were pregnant or in trouble with the law, and became fascinated by the links between educational failure and offending.

She met Judge Tumim at a conference and told him about her idea for a study. He gave her an introduction to the Home Office. "I would not have got anywhere without him," she says. Her research took two years and her 250 subjects are anonymous. She followed up questionnaires with private interviews in 12 prisons, ranging from maximum-security to open and remand institutions, and since completing her research has been corresponding with some of the inmates.

One of her themes is how people are lost in large classes. An inmate called Maria (a pseudonym) recalled: "When I got to this very big comprehensive school with hundreds of pupils I felt lost. I'd always enjoyed learning but the classes were so big and I just couldn't settle." So Maria ended up a truant at the age of 12. She put on her uniform every day but never went to school. Instead she caught a train to her sister's house where she earned extra pocket money baby-sitting. Eventually her mother discovered the ruse, called the police, and Maria was sent to a detention centre.

Angela Devlin is sympathetic to teachers' predicaments. Schools are underfunded and staff do not have the professional help they need, she says. And she questions if teachers can keep tabs on large classes. One inmate had a perforated eardrum which was not discovered until she was an adult - and in prison. Another inmate was dyslexic, a condition only spotted by the prison education service Children need to be treated as individuals, not as part of a herd, says Angela Devlin. Praise - an emphasis on rewarding success rather than punishing failure - is the way to get good results: "You have to look for the positive."

Petty rules are pointless, she says. Schools need a few general rules, such as a respect for one another, with clear punishments for breaches, but with the greatest stress being laid on rewards for good behaviour.

Prison education cuts, page 26 Criminal Classes by Angela Devlin, Waterside Press, Domum Road, Winchester SO23 9NN. Pounds 16, plus Pounds 1.50 postage and packing

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