Michaela – Unlock helped me to get a better understanding of the legislation surrounding disclosure and I’ve now secured a place at university
Call for participants: university applications
Osman – Unlock’s support was invaluable during my university application and barring representation
Call for evidence: university admissions
Have you applied to university with a criminal record? Had to disclose? Been successful or rejected?
We’d like to hear from you.
Since 2018 we have been working with universities to develop fair admissions for students with criminal records. We want to hear the experiences of applicants and students with criminal records so we can help universities and colleges improve their approach. If you were treated unfairly, tell us about it. We also want to hear positive experiences of disclosure and support. Our fair admissions pledge is a way for universities to let applicants know they will be treated fairly – but we’d like to hear from people who have applied.
We want to hear from people with criminal records who have applied for any university course in the last three years. Please tell us:
The courses and universities you applied to
Did you have to disclose an unspent or spent conviction?
What happened next – were you asked for more information, was there an admissions panel?
What was the decision?
If you were unsuccessful, did you apply somewhere else?
If you were successful, did you need and/or receive any support throughout your course?
Were you given careers advice that was relevant to your conviction?
Anything else you’d like to tell us
The information you provide will not be shared without your permission, and will help us to improve access to education for people with criminal records.
Why do I still have to fight for everything when my conviction was almost 4 years ago?
Whether you’re applying for a college/university course or a job, disclosing a conviction could potentially make it more difficult. Is it any surprise therefore that some people with a criminal record never reach their full potential simply because the fight goes out of them.
In 2015 I came to the UK from the Czech Republic where I’d taught 1st grade primary school children. Although I was a university graduate with a Master of Teaching in the Czech Republic, I had to demonstrate that I was able to teach in the UK and not long after I arrived, I was awarded the Qualified Teacher Status. It felt incredible and I was so happy.
I was offered a job working as a general teaching assistant and, only a few weeks into my new job I was given the task of working on a one-to-one basis with a 4 year old boy who was on the autistic spectrum. He was finding it extremely hard to settle into the school environment and needed extra support.
Lucas (not his real name) could be quite difficult to work with; he was aggressive towards the other children and me, and there were times that he would be a danger to himself. As he got to know me, we started to gel but I had never worked with children with special educational needs before or experienced such behaviour and there were times when I found it quite shocking but, I persevered.
Six months after I’d started working with him, his behaviour suddenly escalated to a level that I’d never seen before and I didn’t know what to do, he was totally out of control. As a last resort, I smacked him across the bottom. I realised straight away that I’d made a huge mistake and immediately went to find my manager and tell her what had happened. I thought we’d be able to talk through the situation and then decide a course of action (more training, a warning etc). Sadly I wasn’t given that opportunity, just suspended from duty.
It took 5 months for the school to conduct a fact finding meeting and in that time I was told that I couldn’t go near the school. Colleagues who I’d thought of as friends ignored me. In the May of that year I went to the police station to give a voluntary statement and in the September I was charged – assault by beating. My case went to court in January 2017 and I was found guilty. The magistrate expressed his disapproval at the lack of training the school had provided me with.
After the court case I had to wait another 6 months to find out that the DBS were not going to add me to the children’s barred list and this gave me a glimmer of hope that my career wasn’t finished.
For the next two years finding a full time job was almost impossible and so I cleaned houses whilst also working as a very part-time nanny. As it became more and more difficult to earn a regular income I signed on with the job centre and, after telling my ‘story’ to the work coach she arranged for me to meet with a recruitment agency.
The meeting couldn’t have gone better and the agency took me on. It took 3 months for my DBS certificate to arrive but once it did, I started working as a nursery nurse.
Whilst I’d been doing my cleaning job I’d been accepted onto a level 2 counselling course at a local college. I’d disclosed my conviction and been told by the course leader that it wouldn’t be a problem for the course but may present some difficulties in the future if I wanted to work in this field. I decided to face that bridge when I came to it and so I started the course.
I found it really interesting but also demanding and not everyone that started it managed to finish. However, I felt quite confident going onto level 3. I was surprised therefore to be called in to see the course leader who told me (in an extremely hostile way) that my application to move onto the level 3 course was being refused on the basis of my criminal record.
As part of my course we’d had to work through our own personal issues, be open about ourselves and learn what it’s like to feel vulnerable. Maybe that’s why I’m so surprised and disappointed that a trained counsellor and course leader could have spoken to me and treated me in the way she did.
I want to appeal the college’s decision but I need to mentally prepare myself first. I’d really like to use my own experiences to help others but sometimes you just get dragged down with having to fight for every chance or opportunity.
How can one question determine your career opportunities?
Whether you’re applying to university or for a job, as a person with a criminal record there will be a point in the process when you’re asked about your conviction(s). James has likened this to a judge passing sentence, the feeling that somebody else is making a decision which will potentially affect the rest of your life.
The two words all prisoners hear, and most fear. These two words happen at the same time every day/week during their stay behind the walls. It is the time when they are left alone with their thoughts and realise that life goes on without them. It is then, and only then, that they can commit to taking action upon release. There were times during my own experiences that I started to formulate in my head what I needed to do when released. Once you hear the keys rattle and the gates close behind you, it’s time for those thoughts to start taking action.
Returning to society can be one of the most difficult challenges you will ever face. You have to navigate all the vices which you will have access to again; alcohol, medication, drugs and risk taking behaviours. Furthermore, the peer group you left behind will all want to come back into your life again which can put you in situations you need to avoid, or guess what, you’re back behind the walls again.
Leaving the prison behind at aged 19, I wasn’t aware of how my criminal record would affect me when applying for a job. When I left school I had no formal education but while behind the walls I accessed a range of vocational courses that gave me the motivation to start over. After rummaging through newspapers, going to the job centre and researching online, I saw a course at the local college which was of great interest. After being accepted to the course (no criminal record check was needed at that time) I spent 3 years attaining a foundation degree which was a pathway into university (the real end goal).
The university application was a lot more robust to complete and as I worked my way through each page with anticipation and excitement I almost missed the question that ex-offenders all fear
Do you have any criminal convictions spent or unspent?
Now here I am aged 23 with a feeling of real dread in my stomach, asking myself the question “what do I do with this box?”
The emotions overcame me and I felt sick. Where do I go from here, after the journey it took to get here? It was clear I needed assistance so I went to the Citizens Advice Bureau and asked them what I should do. In my head I wanted to tick the box that said ‘unspent’ as this was transparent. However, I knew that by doing this it might also mean I wasn’t accepted which was hard to digest. The guidance from the CAB, leave the box blank and let the university decide once they receive the criminal record check.
The course started in September 2001 and I was having an unbelievable time, meeting new people, learning new skills and going for the odd beer or two! Not 3 weeks into the course I got a letter requesting I attend a meeting at the university with the Admissions Panel. At that moment I felt like I was back in court with the judge passing the custodial sentence. Waiting outside the room I knew this could only go two ways; you stay on the course, or your days at university are over. I opened the door and there was a panel of 6 people. I sat down knowing the question they were going to ask me.
Why didn’t you tick the box?
After explaining how I felt about the process up to the box and how I had turned my life around full circle since leaving prison, they asked me to wait outside. It was during this time in the hall that I reflected on what had gone before and what rejection would mean for my career opportunities moving forward. If they said no, how would any other university say “yes”? (this wasn’t Dragons Den). The door opened and they asked me to take a seat and communicated their decision based on what I had told them. It was an acceptance to continue on the course.
What a result! I felt like Will Smith in the movie The Pursuit of Happiness.
So you see, you can start over, you just need people to believe in you.
Discuss this issue – There are some interesting discussions related to applying to university on our online forum.
I’m following a different path but looking forward to the journey – accepted to study at university
A criminal record may necessitate a change to some of the plans we’ve made for the future but as Lachlan discovered, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
I don’t think I’m a bad person but I’ve definitely made some bad choices. Unfortunately, it was one of these that led to a conviction for assault and a 12 month suspended prison sentence. I acted without thinking and will always regret what I did but I can’t change that now.
At the time of my conviction I’d just finished my A levels and was considering what I wanted to do next – gap year, university, work? However, it quickly became apparent that thanks to my conviction I had far less choice than I’d had before.
Travelling to Australia (which had been top of my gap year destinations) wasn’t possible as I’d received a 12 month sentence, even though I’d never stepped foot inside a prison. I assumed that other countries would be the same, although I know now that probably wasn’t the case.
I’d wanted to study for a social work degree and already knew that due to the work placements the university would do an enhanced DBS check. I did loads of research online about the impact of my conviction and although I couldn’t find a definitive answer, I got the impression that most universities would reject my application.
My world had been turned upside down. One minute so much choice and the next – no choice and seemingly no future. I lost interest in the things I’d once enjoyed, had less energy, lost my appetite and just felt generally worthless.
Getting a job looked like the only thing I could do and so I started to job hunt online. I couldn’t believe how many companies asked about unspent convictions and the thought of having to disclose mine to a stranger filled me with dread; I just couldn’t do it. And so another door slammed shut in my face.
Worried family and friends convinced me to go and see my GP who prescribed me anti-depressants. I didn’t want to turn to chemicals to make me feel better and so I started to ‘self-care’ – yoga, walking and the occasional exercise class. As time passed I found I was having more good days than bad and on one of the good ones it suddenly struck me, my conviction would impact on my life but how much was up to me.
A criminal record and no work experience wasn’t going to land me the best job and so it felt that university might be the way forward. With all thought of social work gone, I discovered courses I’d never have considered before and eventually plumped for a degree in digital forensics and cyber security.
As I had been convicted of a violent offence and my conviction was unspent, I had to disclose it to the university. Even though disclosure was necessary, that didn’t make it any easier and there were several times as I wrote my disclosure letter that I almost threw in the towel. I started to worry about what people would think of me, would they gossip about my conviction, would I be ostracised, would I be ‘watched’ just in case I broke the law again? However mad these thoughts might sound, they were so real to me at the time.
In the end I wrote two disclosure letters; one quite brief and another which gave a lot more background around the circumstances leading up to the conviction. I emailed the university the brief version taking the view that I could use the longer one when I attended the panel hearing. Writing the disclosure statement proved to be quite a cathartic experience, it freed me from the burden of having to hide a part of myself and freed me from the shame I felt about my criminal record.
On the day of the panel hearing, I was nervous but felt as prepared as I could be. The panel asked me a few questions verifying what I’d put in my original disclosure but didn’t ask anything more. I was asked to step out of the room and 10 minutes or so later I was called back in and my place on the course was confirmed.
Discuss this issue – There are some interesting discussions related to this issue on our online forum.
No challenge, no change – from drug dealer to university student
Devon was involved in criminality for a long time, recruiting children to deliver drugs for him and teaching them how to avoid arrest. Following a spell in prison, he’s put his previous life behind him and is learning how to gain respect from education.
From a very early age I was ‘involved’ in crime. I lived with my family in South London where it was common practice for friends and family to ‘duck and dive’ to survive or make a bit of extra money.
Aged 15 my father died and what little discipline I had vanished and I became more unruly and out of control. I became heavily involved in the drug scene (distributing, not taking) and left school as soon as I could; earning money was more important to me than an education.
Before long I was using local kids to ferry cannabis, cocaine and other class A drugs, knowing they would be less likely to be stopped by the police. I’d use apps and video games to recruit kids to my gang; it was easy – too easy.
Offering struggling kids money bought me respect not just from them but from their parents as well.
By 2010 I was living the life of a gangster although I’d convinced myself that I was actually a businessman. I became too cocky and in May 2010 I was arrested. The police investigation took over a year but in 2010 I was convicted and sentenced to prison.
I started my sentence full of attitude and carried on like that for the first couple of years. But, following a prison visit from my mum something clicked. I could see how disappointed she was in me and how she needed me at home. I knew that if I continued to flout the rules I’d never get out.
So I set about changing. I spent time in both the gym and the classroom and learnt to love learning. I was lucky to have a truly inspirational teacher and I realised that being educated could give you just as much power and respect as being a dealer. I started to believe in myself and with my teachers support I studied for three GCSE’s and took a personal training qualification.
I’ve been out of prison for a year now. I’ve moved away from South London, away from the friends and life I once had and it’s taken me a while to settle into a new area and a life away from prison. I managed to find myself a job in a gym where I run regular classes as well as doing 1-to-1 personal training. I’m enjoying earning an honest income and doing the normal things that other people take for granted.
I’m now ready to take the next step and I’ve just been accepted to study economics and marketing at university.
I’m a bit worried about studying, concerned about being amongst all the ‘clever kids’ but as my mum keeps telling me:
“You’ve got as much right to be there as anybody else. You deserve your place.”
I know there are still hurdles to climb and that my past could impact upon my future but I don’t see the barriers anymore just challenges to overcome.
Discuss this issue – There are some interesting discussions related to this issue on our online forum
“Acceptance was the answer to my problems” – Getting into university with an unspent conviction
Despite education being widely recognised as a key factor in successful rehabilitation, having to disclose a conviction will often mean that people with convictions are discouraged from applying. But, refusal from one university didn’t stop Henry from following his dream to study for a Masters.
I’m so pleased to be writing this and able to say that I’ve just been accepted at university to study for a Masters despite having an unspent conviction.
Although I was applying to study on a distance learning basis, the university asked that I disclose any convictions for any relevant offences. These were defined as:
Those convictions for offences against the person, whether of a violent or sexual nature, and convictions involving unlawfully supplying controlled drugs or substances where the conviction concerns commercial drug dealing or trafficking.”
Unfortunately, my offence was considered relevant. I’d previously been turned down for a similar course at a bricks-and-mortar university which would have involved spending one day each week on the university campus. The rejection letter I’d received had pulled no punches either which gave me a really bad feeling when applying the second time.
I felt that no matter what I said, my application would be refused.
I spent a long time putting a disclosure letter and personal statement together. I stuck to the facts about my offence and conviction but made sure that I showcased everything I’d done since then. I provided evidence of all the courses that I’d completed and mentioned that I’d participated in various therapeutic communities. This appeared to be the key to my success.
I had been asked whether the university could contact my supervising officer. My probation officer’s heavy case-load meant that responding to queries from the university wasn’t high on her list of priorities and I had to work hard to get her to deal with it sooner rather than later. However, the report she wrote was extremely favourable and, taken into consideration with the other information supplied, I was offered a place on the course.
The nature of my conviction is very stigmatising and the prospect of having to reveal it was daunting. For the most part, the people I dealt with were respectful and did all they could do to support my application and I’m really grateful to them for that. The Masters is a great opportunity for me to move on with my life and I can’t wait to really get stuck into my studies.
By Henry (name changed to protect identity)
A comment from Unlock
Although Henry was asked to disclose his conviction, remember that universities should only be asking for this information if the course you are studying will lead to an occupation which is exempt from the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, for example nursing or teaching etc.
Although it can be difficult to challenge questions like this, it’s important that you only disclose what you legally need to.
Comment – Let us know your thoughts on this post by commenting below.
I found my creative side about 12 years ago whilst I was serving a six-year sentence in a young offender institution. I was locked up for 23 hours a day, in a single cell, in HMYOI Brinsford and had minimal contact with anyone outside of the prison walls. But, I did have a pencil, and after seeing other people’s artwork on the wing, I began to draw on any odd scraps of paper that I could acquire, and when they ran out, I drew into bars of prison issue soap.
I was soon transferred to HMYOI Stoke Heath, and although I struggled to get into the art class, I did have access to more materials in my cell. I would spend my days working in the tailoring department and attended vocational training courses, but in the evening I would draw. I drew photographs for other inmates, mostly of their family members or pets, and charged them two shower gels for each one. I got pretty good. An art tutor from the education department had heard of me and my work, and when we met she gave me a 2009 Koestler Awards entry form. She explained what Koestler Arts was and encouraged me to apply. I did and six months later I received a letter saying my artwork would be exhibited in a Koestler exhibition in London.
At this point I had already been entrusted enough to be given day release, to work in the Staff Mess just outside the main gate. I spoke with Wing Officers, Senior Officers, the Education Department and the Deputy Governor to see if they would allow me ‘day release’ to attend college and finish an arts course that I had started before my prison sentence. I received the same response from each; ‘this isn’t going to happen’. So I went to the Resettlement Department and explained how far I had been rehabilitated, that I had this piece of work in an exhibition, explained my plans and asked for their support. They set up a meeting with me and the Governor, and somehow I managed to convince her to set up a ROTL scheme with a local college, something that hadn’t been done in that prison before. A month or so later I received an offer to interview with two art tutors at New College in Telford.
I was rejected from my first four university choices for having a criminal record. So, I decided to call up the fifth and final choice and plead with them to at least just meet me. I was offered an interview, and then a place, and I moved up north to study a BA in Fine Art at the University of Sunderland. Towards the end of my degree I received an offer to exhibit at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art in a solo show as part of their New Talent programme.
I got back in touch with Koestler Arts, and over a period of time, they invited to take part in their trip to the Venice Biennale, gave me a mentor, invited me to curate a part of their 2014 exhibition Catching Dreams and gave me a job as an Arts and Exhibitions Assistant.
After a few years of working in this role I applied to study, and to my excitement and slight disbelief, was offered a place at the Royal Drawing School on their post-graduate programme. I worked part-time at Koestler, part-time on my arts practice and full-time on the Drawing Year. It was a very busy 14 months. At the end of the course I was awarded the Chairman’s Prize and one of my drawings was selected to join the Royal Archive at Windsor Castle.
I hadn’t made may pieces about prison after I left but for some reason, I felt it was the right time to explore some of those memories. During my time studying, I made 99 soap carvings about my memories of prison, and I decided to enter them into the 250th RA Summer show, curated by Grayson Perry. The piece was selected and went on display in the Summer of 2018. I had written a short story of each memory carving and after the success of the RA, decided to turn them into a handmade book.
Koestler gave me my first bit of encouragement in the arts, and this was all that was needed, for me to believe that I could build a second chance. I now have a voice.”
A Comment from Unlock
If you’ve been inspired by Lee’s story then you may be interested to know that the Koestler Awards 2020 is now open for entries. Find out more here.
Comment – Let us know your thoughts on this post by commenting below.