Beyond the School Gates
Mentoring support for excluded students and their families
The Beyond the School Gates project carried out research to better understand why children and young people get excluded, and why some types of children are more likely to be excluded than others. It also aimed to make recommendations on what support and resources are needed by families to reintegrate excluded children back into the classroom. It also sought to use the research to inform the creation of a referral process in the form of a new Co-operative Alternative Provision.
This was a three-phase project:
Phase 1: Using the Participatory Action Research method, three former excluded students and their families trained as researchers to carry out focus groups and semi-structured interviews with five families in which young people had been excluded.
Phase 2: The Phase 1 findings informed this second stage, a mentoring pilot. In this pilot, the researchers were trained as mentors to work in pairs to create safe, relational spaces that enabled the five excluded students and their parents to develop the confidence and skills needed to access resources and re-engage with their education.
Phase 3: This aimed to establish a referral system, and subsequently a funding stream, in order to make the transition from a small research project to a co-operative Alternative Provision.
Six out of 10 excluded students had made significant and recognised (by educational institutions) progress to re-engage with education.
KEY FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The conclusions question whether becoming an alternative provision is perhaps counter-productive to supporting these students to re-engage with education.
The research explored young people’s barriers and enablers in relation to re-engaging with education. It found that students didn’t have a lack of desire or willingness to engage with their education or to learn new skills, nor were their aspirations low. Moreover, the findings show that their parents had made efforts whenever possible to support their child’s education, and were willing to be supported and guided to resources that enable them to achieve this more effectively.
Three key themes emerged from the findings:
- Families had experienced significant disruption through bereavement, parental separation, illness or more specifically, the child’s SEND. Fundamentally, the family and individual narratives had been disrupted, which had impacted on their future orientation and goals. Students’ and their parents’ narratives were disrupted such that, in the context of these conditions that led to and were exacerbated by exclusion, they had become inseparable and mutually dependent. This isn’t to say these relationships were harmful but rather that they were sometimes the sole means of relational support these students had at the time of the mentoring sessions and led, to some extent, to parents, students and teachers blaming one another for lack of progress or engagement with education. These events had coincided with a critical period of adolescent development that relies on significant adults (in informal relational contexts) to support their transition from childhood to adulthood, and involves students making informed decisions and taking responsibility for their actions in order to develop their narratives (see Farouk 2017). Hence, this process was significantly limited for these students. Moreover, significant others were being sought elsewhere in the form of meeting other students who had also been excluded.
- An underlying motivation driving these students’ actions and decision-making was survival and a desire to re-establish a sense of ontological security (feeling safe and secure in the world around us) within the context of fractured relationships and self-narratives. This is not to overlook their poor decision-making and somewhat egocentric actions that would require interventions that aimed to stop harm to others and to themselves. Nonetheless, it is arguable that these students were exercising some agency but in the form of negative and harmful behaviours that impacted on others around them.
These processes meet a basic human need; to feel secure and safe (See Maslow’s 1958 hierarchy of needs). This is not to say the actions of each student were acceptable but that a deeper, underlying need was perhaps not being sufficiently met, which was further compounded by SEND and social and familial constraints.
The role of Beyond the School Gates had shifted by Phase 3 and had perhaps become counter-productive to the students, their parents and the mentors. These students and parents had encountered a series of personal, social and institutional experiences that had culminated in the students’ exclusion from mainstream school and led to a spiral of disaffection and educational disengagement, although the students’ desire to learn had not diminished since exclusion. However, access to education that enabled them to reach their future aspirations was significantly restricted.
The parents had attempted to engage the support provided by educational psychologists, school leaders, social services and SEND specialist support groups. Where this had not made a significant impact on the young person’s educational engagement, the parents had lowered their aspirations for their child and focused blame for lower aspirations on the young person’s laziness or other SEND, which they believed hadn’t been adequately addressed. However well-meaning and intentioned, subsequent interventions had actually increased rather than decreased the spiral of conflict and disengagement.
In Phase 3 of the research Beyond School Gates (BSG) had taken some referrals that had been school rather than parent- or student-led and in doing so had now become a part of the processes that had led to this spiral or disorientation. That is, students had been referred to BSG mentors by West Sussex Alternative Provision (WSAPC) staff, albeit well-intentioned and based on consent by students and their parents, but this process had shifted BSG’s position from creating relational and dialogic spaces between the parents and professional organisations that enabled reflection and re-orientation, towards one of acting on behalf of the organisation to endorse their practices and processes in order to help the students re-engage the education on offer.
The mentoring sessions carried out with students and parents who had been made aware of BSG but made initial contact themselves saw significantly more impact on the students’ re-engagement with their education in the short period of time available. Here, BSG’s relational support to schools and professionals was critical. Yet, there was a distinct difference in BSG’s effect on the students and parents who had initiated contact with it and those who had not initiated contact with BSG but with whom WSAPC or BSG had made first contact.
Although this study was carried out with a very small sample of students, the outcome was significant such that it raises a question about the relational position that BSG must take in order to support these students and their parents if the project were to continue. To explore how BSG might be best positioned, the theoretical framework emerging from Phases 1 and 2 of this study need to be reconsidered. Here, BSG mentoring would provide a non-academic/educational intervention that did not guide the young people and parents towards predetermined outcomes or goals on behalf of partner organisations – whether they be academic, social or personal.
Rather, and uniquely for such a provision, BSG needed to provide relational support that enabled students and their parents to discuss and express her concrete realities together. Essentially, BSG mentor sessions would create a relational shelter that enabled students and parents to re-establish a positive relationship between themselves (although some students would require separate sessions from their parents at times) and the mentors, thus enabling them to define the good life they wanted now and in the near future (16 to 25 years). Moreover, BSG would not replace or undermine external organisations’ input but would act as a conduit and mediator on the students’ and parents’ behalf to these organisations. Essentially, mentors would co-create and join students and parents in a relational shelter and help them stay safe within this relational space until they had re-established their relationships and re-orientated their future self-narratives together
- What does student-led/student-voice mean in practice? How far is or should it be allowed to challenge/contradict organisational voice? How (and how far) should the student voice be incorporated into leadership decision-making?
- How do organisations remain credible and trusted by both schools and excluded pupils? How possible/desirable is it to appear neutral and independent?
In response to increasing public pressure to address rising school exclusion rates, the Department for Education (March 2018) instigated a review of exclusions. It called for research evidence that explored headteachers’ use of exclusion in practice and asked why some students are more likely to be excluded than others.
The project had a delayed start and (as of June 2020) was still running. It continued into its second phase and is now working with SUN (Southern Universities Network), the Uni Connect programme linked with the University of Portsmouth.
West Sussex Parent Carer Forum and West Sussex Alternative Provision College
NCOP – now Uni Connect (Innovation Fund)