We hear often that higher education staff who are making decisions about criminal records feel undertrained and would like an opportunity to learn more.
The higher education sector is full of passionate, dedicated staff who are committed to making education fair and available for all. Yet, many staff haven’t had the opportunity to learn more about the challenges relating to criminal records, or how their own institution approaches them. This is likely to mean that approaches will be inconsistent at best, and unfair at worst. We regularly receive calls on our helpline from applicants and students who have not been able to continue or join a course because a university is mistaken about what their criminal record means.
The first and most obvious way to support staff who may encounter criminal records is to ensure that as an institution, your approach to criminal records is clear. Policies, guides and processes should be available for anyone who needs them. All staff should know who to talk to if they have a question regarding criminal records (this could be your named point of contact). In order to ensure that everyone in an institution has a basic awareness of the relevant issues, you might consider:
- Internal resource sheets, with a summary of the key issues, and your institution’s approach. These can include links to further reading (your policies, or external research and comment).
- Awareness days or dates within an EDI calendar
- Inviting subject-expert guests for internal staff webinars or skills-sharing sessions.
Some higher education staff will need training on criminal records. The level of training will depend on their role. For example, the admissions team may have to respond to questions about an institutions criminal record policies, and will need basic training to provide informed answers. But where staff need to make decisions involving criminal record information, they will need comprehensive training.
The laws surrounding the criminal record disclosure regime are complex, and can change. It is unrealistic to expect staff to make fair and appropriate decisions without in-depth training and guidance.
”When I started, there weren’t any instructions on how to interpret criminal records. Luckily, my predecessor had just moved to a different department, so I could get their advice in my first few months. I don’t know how I would have been able to make decisions without their input”
Below are a series of examples of the sorts of training and knowledge that might be relevant for certain teams:
Sometimes, decisions about applicants with criminal records are made by a very small number of staff members. This makes these processes liable to change in the event of staff turnover, unplanned absences, or insufficient training.
To support those new in post, and to provide fairness for applicants, institutions should ensure that there are clear and comprehensive guides available for those in decision-making roles. Considering applicants on a case-by-case basis is important, but there should be a framework in place for staff to apply to each case.
Approaches to training for admissions staff will vary depending on each institution’s approach to criminal records. If you have separate teams for assessing regulated vs non-regulated courses, the requisite knowledge might differ. Likewise, the decision whether to ask or not for access to non-regulated courses will affect the required training for decision-makers.
Admissions staff (non-regulated courses where criminal records questions are not asked):
- Strong understanding of provider policy and approach
- Knowledge of what data needs deleting, if it is disclosed
- Knowledge of which non-regulated courses may have some optional criminal record checks (e.g for placements or additional roles)
- Confidence in signposting applicants to sources of support, both internal and external (e.g Unlock as external, named point of contact if internal)
- General understanding of the challenges faced by applicants with criminal records
- Knowledge of which other areas of the application process may involve criminal record questions (e.g access to accommodation)
Admissions staff (non-regulated courses where criminal records questions are asked):
As above, but additionally:
- Understanding of criminal record disclosure legislation
- Confidence to ignore and delete disclosure of disclosure of spent or filtered records
- Understanding of statutory service role in managing risks if present
Admissions staff for regulated courses (where a DBS check is required):
- Interpreting the contents of a criminal record as listed on a DBS certificate
- Assessing risk and relevance (and whose responsibility this is)
- Understanding spent and unspent criminal records
- Comprehensive understanding of filtering
Widening access & participation teams
For those in outreach roles, an understanding of the technical/legal aspects of a criminal record may be less important, but the intersectional and personal challenges which may accompany a criminal record are more relevant. These teams should have a good understanding of:
- Disproportionality in the criminal justice system, and how this might impact who ends up with a criminal record, or the seriousness of the conviction
- How criminal records can impact a person’s life. This should cover the potential presence of shame, experiences of discrimination, and trauma that might relate to someone’s criminal record.
- How taking an active, vocal and positive approach to criminal records may encourage participation from people with criminal records who have not previously believed that higher education is an option available to them.
Staff who support students during their studies (those who work as personal tutors, or in student counselling services, etc) will likely benefit from training similar to that of widening participation teams. There are additional considerations for how a criminal record may impact a student’s journey through study, such as:
- Understanding of how criminal records might impact study
- How criminal records may affect a student’s ability to feel part of the higher education community
- How criminal records may affect someone’s access to other services or their finances
- How criminal records may contribute to isolation; within an institution, and in their wider personal and family lives
Co-designing with students
When deciding how you approach criminal records, students with criminal records, who will be directly affected by your approach will be able to provide you with key information and advice. If you are aware of students with criminal records who would like to use their experience positively, you might consult with them on how they would like your institution to approach this issue.
You may find that having direct student representatives helps staff to understand the issue more than a written directive or training materials. Any project of this kind should be carefully designed with the participant’s interests in mind; what will they gain and what risks might there be for them in being involved? Can you protect their privacy whilst learning from their experiences?
Responding to media
We know that an occasion for which staff training can be vital is when Universities are approached by the media.
PR strategies are about more than just press releases or building your institution’s brand. They’re also about equipping your staff to respond to press coverage (positive or negative). Having a clear policy, underpinned by agreed principles about students with criminal records, will ensure that you are able to respond appropriately and consistently.
Some organisations find it beneficial to have a pre-prepared statement that can be used in the first instance before a specific response is agreed. This statement might include:
- A short explanation of your policy for applicants with criminal records
- A description of the core principles that underpin the policy – how this fits in with WP work and why the policy was implemented
- Reference to protective measures that your institution has implemented (ie, what are the methods of risk management that mean you feel confident in your approach?)
Staff should be trained to know who in the University should and can respond to media enquiries. Any staff member who receives a request for comment should be confident knowing who to contact to provide this. This could be part of the role for a named point of contact.