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With the prison population soaring, it's hardly surprising that around half a million kids have parents behind bars. Hannah Frankel looks at how teachers can help these children, who are ashamed, angry and confused

Suzy was not in school today. She is visiting her father in prison. He has spent several years in jail for attempted murder, so instead of being in her maths class, she is making the four-hour round trip to see him with her mother. She feels ashamed, embarrassed, angry and confused.

She also feels alone, but she shouldn't. She is one of 150,000 children who see a parent go to prison each year. Over the course of their education, 7 per cent of young people will experience the imprisonment of a parent; that equates to more than half a million pupils. And this figure does not include other family members.

The phenomenon is less surprising when you look at the spiralling prison population. At present, England and Wales accommodate 79,714 prisoners - just 286 short of total capacity. Their children are the largely forgotten victims, and it is teachers who are left to pick up the pieces.

"It is a serious problem, yet the issues remain hidden away in schools,"

says Lucy Gampell, director of Action for Prisoners' Families. "It has a detrimental effect on education because the pupil's mind is often not on their school work. Instead they are worrying about their absent parent and coming to terms with that sense of loss. It is crucial that teachers pick up the signs and know how to respond if a child or parent confides in them."

Fiona, a form tutor and PSHE teacher at a secondary school in Stoke-on-Trent, first recognised the problem after spotting one of her pupil's unusually aggressive behaviour. She then discovered that his father had been arrested on serious drugs charges. This was just the tip of the iceberg.

"In some cases, having a family member in prison is seen as the norm, but for others the impact is enormous," she says. "One child, who had previously been quiet and hard-working, suddenly became either extremely loud or completely withdrawn. Another pupil began stealing. A third displayed attention-seeking behaviour. On the whole, they tend to need someone outside the family to talk to."

But it is harder still for teachers when pupils or their families decide to keep the issue a secret. Prison visiting times are usually during school hours, and some pupils would rather lie or play truant than disclose their true whereabouts. If they do reveal their situation, they can face feelings of shame and embarrassment, and a barrage of discrimination and prejudice.

Others do not have the luxury of choosing who to confide in, as news gets out via gossip or the press.

Some youngsters are not even told the truth themselves. A third of all children are unaware they are visiting a prison, having been told that it is a parent's workplace or some sort of training camp. One Year 6 boy was told that his mother could not be contacted because she was staying at a health farm - for the best part of a year.

Fiona is adamant that pupils can only be helped if they are kept informed, and if they tell the truth. "School can be an anchor point in an otherwise chaotic and fluctuating world," she says. "It is important schools stay that way and that they don't become a breeding ground for bullying or isolation."

South Harford middle school in Norwich, was one of the few schools contacted by the TES happy to be named in this article, in an attempt to remove some of the stigma surrounding the subject. It has received support and staff training from the Ormiston Children and Families Trust, and has strong PSHE that explores the issues surrounding imprisonment.

"All our pupils are offered the opportunity to discuss their feelings, both through formal circle time activities and in private with a staff member of their choice," explains Sue Banbury, the head.

"Regular nurture groups are also run, which provide a supportive and accepting atmosphere for some of our more troubled children. It's crucial because if we don't understand the context of children's lives, we can't fully support them. In the end, it's their learning that suffers."

However, Bernadette Thompson who is head of Gallions Primary in Newham, east London, says it is important to remember that teachers are educators first and foremost, and social workers a distant second.

"We can't be expected to sort out everyone's home problems," she says. "We have counselling available, but we try to encourage the children to leave their problems at the gate."

Nine per cent of pupils at Gallions have a family member in prison, but Ms Thompson says they are mostly supported through the school's drive to teach the curriculum through the arts, rather than any specific discussion group.

"Feelings of anger and confusion can be explored indirectly through our highly creative curriculum, and if the children enjoy school it definitely has a positive impact on their home lives," Ms Thompson adds.

"The best we can do for these children is to help them reach their potential because how else will they be successful in life?"

Research shows that prisoners' children struggle in later life against a myriad difficulties. They are three times more likely to suffer significant mental health problems and - often having battled acute deprivation, exclusion and a family culture of drug and alcohol misuse - there is a higher likelihood that they will become offenders themselves.

Despite the glaringly obvious need to recognise and support these vulnerable pupils, no minister or Government department has taken responsibility for them and there is no national strategy to improve the situation. Although the 2003 Every Child Matters consultation singled them out as a group that was increasing in numbers and encountering "many obstacles", there was no mention of them in the final Green Paper or The Children Act 2004. With no national guidelines or teacher training, staff are often ill-equipped to assist pupils.

Gloucestershire is one of the few local authorities to produce a county-wide policy to address "invisible" pupils with a parent in prison.

It draws attention to the need for confidentiality, explains how behaviour and attendance can be affected, and provides a person schools can turn to for help.

"Teachers call to get reassurance and practical information," says Pat Gifford, from Gloucestershire council. "They often have good but misplaced intentions, so it is helpful for them to be able to follow a protocol, then turn to us for help if needed."

The best thing teachers can do is become aware of the issues and create an atmosphere where pupils can confide in someone if they wish to, says Ms Gampell. "What we must not do is keep pushing these children under the rug," she says. "Criminals come from all walks of life and their children are likely to be hidden in every school, regardless of whether it's a privileged private school or a tough inner-city comprehensive. They need to be catered for if they are to be given a fair shot in life." No one was available to comment from the DfES

Vital statistics

17,000: the number of children separated from their mothers each year due to the women's imprisonment. Many end up in care or as young carers themselves.

150,000: the number of children who have a parent sent to prison each year.

7 per cent: the proportion of the school population that will experience the imprisonment of a parent at some point in their school career.

Half a million: the number of pupils affected by a parent in prison.

50 miles: the average distance prisoners are held from their homes.

Five hours: the time it takes for a quarter of families to make a round trip to prison. This could account for the decline in prison visits and the increasing number of prisoners (45 per cent) who lose contact with their family while in jail.

30 per cent of prisoners' children suffer significant mental health problems, compared with 10 per cent of the general child population.

79,714: the prison population at the time of going to press.

80,000: the total prison capacity in England and Wales.

Warning signs

Pupils may become:

Withdrawn or secretive

Angry or defiant, especially against authority figures

Attention-seeking or self-destructive

Lacking in self-esteem

Poor educational performers

Show significant mental health problems

How to help

Ensure the whole school is supportive towards offenders' families

Make the issue visible through posters, notice boards and brochures

Nominate a lead person to be responsible for managing and gathering information, linking to outside agencies and organising training

Review policies and make sure that confidentiality procedures are understood by everyone, including families

Provide families, children and staff with a reference point for information Include within the PSHE or citizenship curriculum a broader look at the criminal justice system and the consequences for families of offenders

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