Catch them before they go to prison

14th March 2008 at 00:00
In the final part of our series on outsiders looking in on education, Ewan Aitken meets Andrew McLellan

For someone with the imposing title of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, Andrew McLellan has a most unassuming office at the far end of a long corridor in former barracks in Edinburgh's Broomhouse.

It is a far cry from the accommodation he enjoyed when he was Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, but still a whole lot nicer than the lodgings experienced by those whose time at Her Majesty's pleasure he now inspects.

It is also a far cry from his school days when, as a son of the manse, he had a peripatetic educational experience which included a country school in Ayrshire and Madras College in St Andrews - and several others in between.

Dr McLellan describes his primary teachers as "never giving me any sense that they were on my side. It was very authoritarian and I had my share of corporal punishment".

He remembers himself as a "timid boy" who, because of his academic ability, was a victim of the school bully. Secondary school was an improvement: the combination of being academic and "hopeless at games" finally gave him "a way of belonging". He recognises it is usually the other way round, but Dr McLellan has never been one to conform.

He survived, went on to university, ordination and, at one point, election to the council in Greenock as a Liberal Democrat.

But he sees in prisons a very different story of a population which is, almost universally, "young, male, addicted and poor". It was not a case that schools failed them, but that schools played little part in their lives. "I don't hear prisoners blaming their teachers, because so often they didn't have any to blame. If anything, they will say that 'school wasn't for the likes of me'".

Dr McLellan has found that many prisoners have no social skills. As a result, they cannot find a way to "belong" and they remove themselves, often to deal with additional home pressures such as caring for addicted parents or younger children.

He argues that, for many of them, their journey into criminality was "as much to do with isolation from peers as what a teacher did or didn't do".

At the heart of all of his experiences with prisoners are their feelings of utter lack of self-worth or self-respect. Dr McLellan suggests this kicks in during the P6-S2 stages, when the influences of home, school and peers start to compete with each other.

Schools need to think differently to catch those they can, he says. He cites the example of one in a poor area of Fife which has produced an unlikely group of engineering students who have won national prizes and represented Scotland abroad. Their success has given the whole school a new pride in itself. It is based round the work of an inspirational teacher, a dedicated team of staff and a leadership willing to take risks.

A good balance of the curricular and extra-curricular, he says, will lead to fewer prisoners.

As for the role of education in prisons, Dr McLellan accepts it is a tough challenge as prisoners tend to be impatient - any early failure will bring back memories of past negative experiences.

But there is hope, he believes, with examples such as excellent peer reading schemes in Saughton and Kilmarnock prisons. He says "softer" educational opportunities like art tend be more successful.

He singles out another example at Cornton Vale prison where, thanks to an inspirational teacher and a partnership with the local college, it is now possible for prisoners to acquire qualifications which have "changed lives". One woman even chose to forego her parole, so she could complete her course: she had decided that getting a qualification would give her a better chance of real freedom than a few months' earlier release.

But Dr McLellan is not optimistic that schools can help such students avoid prison in the first place. He singles out the exam system, and its purpose in "finding failures," as one of the main culprits.

"Until we ask something different of schools, their ability to make a contribution to reducing the number of those who end up in prison will be limited to some outstanding projects, led by some very dedicated teachers who are given a wee bit of space to breathe," he says.


1944: Born Glasgow

1962-69: St Andrews University; Glasgow University; Union Theological Seminary, New York

1969-86: Ministerial charges in Edinburgh, Greenock and Stirling

1986-2002: Minister, St Andrew's and St George's in Edinburgh

2002 to date: HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland

In addition 1977-80: Member, Inverclyde District Council

1978-82: Tutor, Glasgow University

1982-85: Chaplain, HM Prison, Stirling

1992-96: Convener, Church and Nation Committee, General Assembly of the Church of Scotland

2000: Moderator, General Assembly


Preaching For These People (1997) Gentle and Passionate (2001).

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