Getting in early: can schools help pupils at risk of exclusion and crime?

Ministers want schools to take full responsibility for excluded pupils, but how might that happen? Today new research on how a London school worked to improve attendance and engagement with children at risk of becoming involved with gangs and crime is being presented in London. Society Central’s Fran Abrams will chair a panel discussion at the event and today reports on a project which looked at one school’s innovative strategy.

photo credit; D.C. Atty

 “School didn’t feel like the place for me like…. When I was in school it seemed like everything was outside school, but now I’m outside it seems like everything is inside.”

By the age of 18, Clarence had been out of school for three years. He was given several fixed-term exclusions before being permanently ejected at the age of 15. Street culture seemed more attractive than school in his early teens, he told researchers:

“At the time I was on the streets, doing everything I could do. Everything and anything, that was the plan … Like doing a lot of stuff, init. Smoking. Might have gone out to do a robbery. Might be selling drugs.That’s it, init….. From A class to C class innit. Use your imagination. The whole works, init.”

Views and experiences

Clarence was one of the participants in a research project by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex. It focused on the views and experiences of young people at risk of exclusion, as well as those already excluded.

Under current legislation, local authorities are responsible for ensuring excluded pupils continue to be educated. But the government aims to make schools themselves responsible – and to transfer funding so they can do more to support pupils at risk of exclusion.

Early feedback from a three-year DFE trial involving 180 schools suggested resources needed to be focused increasingly on early intervention with at-risk pupils.

ISER’s project, which is showcased at an event in London today, was based on interviews with young people at risk, including those at one innovative north London school.

The study explored links between low achievement, school exclusion and youth crime among African-Caribbean boys in London. It was supported by the UK Economic and Social Research Council as part of the research programme at ISER’s Research Centre on Micro-Social Change.

The research team spoke to 29 pupils and three staff at one school, ‘Gaskell Academy’, where a proactive approach had been adopted to stop pupils from slipping through the net. ‘Gaskell Academy’ recognised the links between home, neighbourhood, academic underachievement, exclusion and crime, and it adopted a range of strategies to pick up on problems and deal with them before it was too late.

School interventions

Pupils coming into the academy from primary school were given a half-day induction without older pupils present. At first some subjects were covered within projects and in the same classroom, primary school-style. Transition classes were set up for pupils struggling with literacy or numeracy, and those identified as having behaviour problems at primary school spent their first term in a special year 7 class.

  • Older pupils who failed to achieve or whose behaviour caused concern could be referred for intensive help in a learning support centre with a high pupil-teacher ratio.
  • The structured, safe and supportive environment in the centre helped pupils improve their behaviour and control their frustration.
  • Mentoring groups also provided support and guidance to help pupils deal with anger management issues.
  • Special motivational groups were set up for boys in year 10 and year 11.They were encouraged to share their experiences with each other and to set their sights higher, and they were visited by an ex-pupil who was studying at the University of Cambridge.

Opportunities

Various opportunities to take on responsibilities were provided. The boys were asked to deputise for prefects in year 10, to act as mentors to younger pupils in the school and to work in the school youth club. One year 10 pupil told the researchers his mentor set high expectations:

“We don’t wanna let him down. Because he’s like our second father in school. Like if we have problems or something the first person I go to is him. That’s the first person that we’d all go to. Because we know that, of course other teachers will give us support, but it’s like Michael can relate to us.”

In addition to dedicated teaching staff, Gaskell Academy employed a range of other specialists, including a school nurse and a psychotherapist. A police officer worked in the school, helping pupils understand the consequences of antisocial or criminal behaviour, acting as a mediator and supporter in cases where they ‘had a brush with the law’ and trying to counter the negative stereotypes of the police that permeated street culture.

Close relationships were also maintained between the school and professionals from other agencies including social workers, educational psychologists, youth offending teams and a youth inclusion support unit.

Weekly referral meetings were held at which teachers could flag up any problems occurring within their classes, either with students who were struggling or incidents of disruptive behaviour. Gaskell Academy also did outreach work with parents in an attempt to build partnerships with them and with the wider community.

Since the research was completed, these re-engagement and respite schemes have been reorganised into a single one year programme offering alternative provision for year 10 and 11 students from schools across three London boroughs. All participants take a minimum of 5 GCSEs, including English and mathematics and, so far, over ninety per cent have achieved at least 7 passes.

Street culture and crime

The research team also interviewed 12 boys and young men who had failed to thrive at school, who had dropped out or had been formally excluded and who had gone on to become involved in crime. Several of them described how school had made them feel alienated, particularly if they were struggling with their work.

Abasi, who was 17 when he was interviewed, dropped out at 15.

“It was a waste of time,” he said. “I just couldn’t do it like. And when I asked for help it was like the teachers just wanted to piss me off some more, like tell me how much dumber I was, like not help me, like show me I was even more dumb.”

Once out of school these young men were unlikely to gain any GCSEs. At a disadvantage in the labour market and with time on their hands, some were tempted to turn to crime.

The researchers conclude that by adopting a holistic approach, schools can buy time. They can keep these challenging pupils within the protective environment of the education system while they develop the maturity to find routes into law-abiding, productive futures.

Fran Abrams is co-Editor of Society Central

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