When dad goes to jail, where can pupils turn?

3rd June 2016 at 00:00

The Scottish government could, it’s true, have selected a less loaded title for its new legislation.

“Named Person” is heavy with connotations of blame and judgement. And it could raise fears among teachers of being a named person on the front page of the Daily Record if it all goes wrong, turning us into a profession of John Proctors (invoking the Salem witch trials is not all that outlandish, if some of the more hyperbolic criticism of Named Person is to be believed).

But the logic behind this legislation requiring agencies to share information is sound, and if this policy had been given a more user-friendly title – say “Designated Individual” – perhaps there would have been fewer concerns about its introduction this August.

Surprisingly, there is currently no automatic alert letting schools know when a life-altering event, such as the imprisonment of a parent, has happened to a pupil.

And while critics of the Children and Young People (Scotland) 2014 Act argue that this legislation shouldn’t be introduced across the board when only a minority are affected, it should be noted that an estimated 27,000 Scottish school children every year experience a parent going to jail – more than double the number whose parents divorce.

A recent report commissioned by the Families Outside charity (bit.ly/PrisonNP), which supports the families of those affected by imprisonment, suggests that the emotional, educational and long-term impact on the child of a mum or dad going to prison is far greater than that of separation or divorce.

In fact, witnessing the arrest and restraint of a parent can not only cause developmental problems but can also, in some cases, trigger post-traumatic stress disorder.

Often, these children have to cope in school with feelings of confusion, instability or shame – never mind the long journeys and distress involved in prison visits – and all this without a designated member of staff who knows their situation.

The Named Person legislation allows such information to be shared among the agencies concerned and requires them to cooperate, helping schools to put in place both emotional and practical support. This could be crucial, not only to the child’s wellbeing but also in stopping an adult reoffending.

The “requirement to cooperate” with other agencies will have a positive impact on the lives of vulnerable young people.

Presently, it is a judgement call by staff whether to involve social workers in examining concerns, and this can be influenced by the fear of difficult parents or of causing more problems for the child. The legal requirement now takes that decision out of schools’ hands.

Parents already trust teachers with their children’s wellbeing and education. Is trusting us with their personal information really such an overstepping of the mark?

The Scottish government hasn’t got much right on education in recent years but I think this legislation will improve the lives of our most vulnerable children.

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