Conversations about criminal records may bring up difficult memories, shame or other challenging emotions. Higher education providers should take a non-judgmental, supportive approach to the disclosure of criminal records.
Conversations about criminal records should be supportive
It is essential that staff are given training before being asked to have discussions about criminal records.
It is also important that those disclosing criminal records are given an opportunity to explain their record in their own words. Some may have a preference to do this in-person, others may like to write something down.
You may have operational reasons as to why one way of receiving disclosures is preferable to another. Where possible, provide options for students. Below are a few key points to consider for a variety of methods for receiving a disclosure:
Pavel contacted us after his application to a Masters programme in physiotherapy was rejected. Pavel had a number of convictions for fighting and assault from more than 20 years ago, and a conviction for a drug offence from 10 years ago.
Since then he had married and had children, completed a degree and practised a as a sports therapist, working alongside physiotherapists. He had built his own practice and worked for two elite football clubs.
As part of his application, Pavel provided a detailed explanation of his criminal record and several references. He was not asked to attend the panel and, a few days later, his application was rejected. It was clear that the university had not considered all of the evidence Pavel provided.
Unlock wrote to the university, reminding them that Pavel’s convictions for violence were two decades old and that he had worked with patients for several years in a professional setting.
The university agreed to convene a fresh panel and Pavel was invited to attend. He was able to address their concerns about his criminal record and explain that, although sports therapy is not a regulated profession, Pavel had been through the FA’s stringent assessment before being allowed to work with children and young people. He had references from a number of professionals who he had worked with and for. The panel approved his application and Pavel received an unconditional offer from the university.
Conducting a disclosure session in-person can be a supportive and informative process for the applicant and the provider. Meeting a person can help dispel assumptions or challenge biases that might be held on the basis of their criminal record. It also offers staff an opportunity to ask questions as they arise.
This can be an intimidating thing to be invited to as an applicant. Ensure any in-person meetings are prefaced with clear and detailed guidance as to how the meeting will be structured and who will attend. Of course, this method can be restrictive for applicants who are geographically distant from the institution. Any provider suggesting this method should ensure it is clear that there are alternative means if the travel is too onerous.
Video calls may be the most convenient means to mimic an in-person discussion. It is important to remember that digital access is not ubiquitous. You should ensure that someone invited to a virtual session is able to access a suitable device in a suitably confidential space.
Ensure that the applicant/ student knows how the conversation will be structured and who will be attending ahead of time. Provide guidance on any video call etiquette you expect and will observe for the session.
Requesting disclosure in writing
Asking applicants to disclose in writing may offer a valuable opportunity for them to represent their story in their own words. Requesting disclosure in writing may also afford applicants the time needed to consider their words carefully, and to seek advice on what to include.
It is also true, however, that asking for written disclosure can create barriers for people who are less confident writers. Additionally, reading about criminal records at a distance from the person to whom the record relates can make genuine understanding difficult to reach.
You may find that what someone writes doesn’t answer all the questions that you have. This could be remedied by drawing up a template with relevant prompts so that applicants have a clear understanding of the sorts of details you are looking for.
If there is only one member of staff conducting a discussion with an applicant, this might be done over the telephone. This might be less intimidating for applicants than facing a full panel of decision-making staff. However, you may also find that this feels comparatively impersonal. Anyone making these calls should make particular effort to convey warmth and support. Applicants should be given information ahead of the phone call, explaining the process and who they will be talking to.
Whichever option you decide is most appropriate for your institution, or for the specific applicant you are assessing, you should ask yourself: