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Where next for family learning in prison?

Family learning can struggle to find a voice on the prison policy agenda despite successful projects having the potential to reduce reoffending rates, break intergenerational cycles of ‘offending behaviour’, improve the health and wellbeing of the prisoner and restore the bond with their family that is so often put under strain by separation. There are an estimated 160,000 children with a parent in prison at any one time and in 2006 more children were affected by the imprisonment of a parent than by divorce in the family [1]. These figures demonstrate the need for stronger provision of family learning within the prison system at a time when the policy and funding environment is changing.

The NIACE ‘Where next for family learning?’ conference was a chance to learn more about the future of family learning from the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS). It marked a final stage in a consultation between BIS and family learning stakeholders which had already culminated in a report entitled ‘New Challenges New Chances’ [2]. This report re-affirms the commitment to the new strategy for offender learning made in the ‘Making Prisons Work’ review 2011, but did not detail further how these policy changes may affect family learning in prisons

The Family Learning Impact Fund, which previously supported projects across the country including many in prison, has come to a close and is being replaced by a number of ‘Community Learning Trusts’ who will invite bids to run family learning projects both in and outside of prison. This marks a shift towards a stakeholder - led process, whereby more control is given to local organisations to run projects, form partnerships and decide where funding is best spent. How this will impact upon organisations providing family learning services in prison remains unclear.

One area of interest is BIS’s focus on ‘troubled families’. They define a family as ‘troubled’ when it meets 5 out of the following 7 criteria [3]:

  • no one in the family is in work
  • living in poor or overcrowded housing
  • no parent has any qualifications
  • mother has mental health problems
  • at least one parent has a longstanding illness, disability or infirmity
  • a low income
  • an inability to afford a number of food, clothing items.

Interestingly, whilst the criteria determining whether a family is considered ‘troubled’ makes no reference to prison or criminal record, the list itself could just as easily be a reflection of the circumstances of many prisoners and their families outside of custody. Learning Matters hopes that stakeholders will use evidence of the link between ‘troubled families’ and ‘offending behaviour’ to bid to Community Learning Trusts for funds to support family learning projects in prison. Let’s use this chance to expand on the good ongoing work keeping families learning together in prison.

Tom Peters

Project and Fundraising Administrator


[1] Bromley Briefings 2011

[2] BIS, New Challenges New Chances, December 2011 - http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/further-education-skills/docs/n/11-1384-new-challenges-new-chances-summary-responses-to-consultation.pdf

[3] http://www.communities.gov.uk/communities/troubledfamilies/