Back on track

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At the moment, permanent exclusion is a death knell for young people. But the ‘Youth Achievement Foundation’ in Macclesfield is trying to turn that around with its vocational focus. Eliza Vogel-Sharron reports.

Permanent exclusion from school can have a devastating effect on the life chances of young people already struggling to negotiate the demands of education with often complicated and troubled personal lives. Such exclusion dramatically increases the likelihood of young people falling into an existence where they are not effectively engaged in education, employment or training. An existence, of course, which can be hard to get out of.

Although recent figures published by the Home Office show a 6.4% decline in the average number of exclusions, the report also highlights the complex social, cultural and economic factors that lead to children being excluded from school. For example, children who are eligible for free school meals are three times more likely to be excluded, as are children from ethnic minority backgrounds such as Irish Traveller, Gypsy/Roma and Black Caribbean. The link between economic deprivation and exclusion is clear. Similarly clear is the link between exclusion and learning difficulties, with 75% of children in pupil referral units having special educational needs and, no doubt, a myriad of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Meeting the needs of such individuals in mainstream education, without jeopardising the learning needs of the rest of the class, can be a difficult balance to strike. So is finding an effective and economically sustainable solution outside the ordinary classroom, which does not alienate excluded pupils from their peers. John Bateman OBE, the Chief Executive of UK Youth, has spoken out on this issue saying: “Young people who are at risk of exclusion need access to a personalised curriculum that motivates them, together with support from teachers, youth workers and mentors who can provide appropriate support and guidance.” As the government’s white paper ‘Back on Track’ (May 2008) acknowledges, alterative educational provision has traditionally failed to provide excluded pupils with a suitable framework in which to complete their education and go on to access future career opportunities. However, this may be changing as the new Youth Achievement Foundation pathfinder initiative begins to take hold across the UK.

Youth Achievement Foundations

With pilot schemes underway in Scunthorpe, Gloucestershire and Macclesfield, and another 7 to be in place by 2011, Youth Achievement Foundations are experiencing remarkable success. Based on a four-year pilot, Ofsted has rated the provision ‘Outstanding’. The average level of attendance is typically well over 90%. The extent of this achievement can only be appreciated when compared with the attendance levels of such pupils within mainstream education, which averages in the low 30s.

The recent white paper ‘Back on Track’ says: “Where a pupil remains in alternative provision it is essential that they receive an education that puts them on the path to success in adulthood”. This is precisely what the new Youth Achievement Foundation in Macclesfield centre is striving to do.

The pioneering approach being piloted here demonstrates how a focus on practical, vocational education, key skill development and intensive tutor and peer support can transform the prospects of young people failing to engage with the education system. GCSEs are not on the agenda here. As Kevin Bradburne, the head of the Macclesfield project, says: “GCSEs simply haven’t worked for these kids”. Instead, in a striking departure from the traditional model, vocational development, with routes into the work place, represents the primary focus of success.

The Macclesfield Youth Achievement Foundation (MYAF)

The centre is housed in an unlikely building, nestled in a residential estate in Macclesfield which backs onto a playing field. The building itself, the Fermain Centre, is occupied downstairs by a charity providing before and after school care to children, most of who have physical and learning disabilities. MYAF rents the upstairs where they have two classrooms, an office and use of the downstairs kitchen.

Given the potential for disharmony, use of the building is carefully timed so that the MYAF pupils do not cross over with the before and after school club. That said, there is still something uneasy about the set up - with the entrance to the school leading up from the back of the play centre and the building itself subsisting in a condition I could only describe as bleak. These are not issues the centre is unaware of however, and a huge process of renovation is currently underway to get the centre ready for the new academic year, complete with a new entrance, new facilities and brighter décor.
 
The current rudimentary state of the building serves, in many ways, as a useful reminder that this project is still very much in its early stages and has been set up, albeit with some government support, through the charity sector. This centre in Macclesfield was the brain-child of the head teacher, Kevin Bradburne. With the backing of UK Youth Federation, he put together the proposal for the school and the successful bid for funding. He set up the centre from scratch in one year.

Kevin is young and enthusiastic, coming across as a slightly chaotic but hugely charismatic figure. Even in his appearance, he represents something different from mainstream education and it is not difficult to see why he has had such success in getting through to young people where others haven’t. With a background predominantly in youth offending, not teaching, his focus is on developing confidence and stability among his cohort, and finding them achievable pathways.   

When the school was set up in September last year, it operated on a part time only basis, with young people being sent to the centre for one or two days a week for supplementary education provision. The centre went full time in April. This September it is almost doubling its intake - the initial 11 pupils increasing to 20. Groups are, and will remain, incredibly small with ratios never exceeding five pupils to one tutor and only half the students on site at any one time. In line with the government’s statutory obligations, pupils are provided with 25 hours of teaching a week. Such hours, however, are delivered through a radical restructuring of the timetable, with half the lessons taking place outside the classroom.

A typical week

Breakfast - Every morning, the pupils arrive at school and between 9.30am and 10.00am and eat breakfast. Many of the pupils are living on their own or in homes where breakfast isn’t a regular feature, so making sure they have had something to eat is critical to get the most out of them. As Kevin says, no one can concentrate on an empty stomach.

Eating together is also an important social experience - and given the smallness of the team, it helps create a tighter sense of group identity. The breakfast half hour, Kevin explains, gives the kids a chance to chat about the night before, before the lessons start. During this time, tutors take the opportunity to move round the students and raise any points of concern or praise and to set informal objectives for the day.

Attendance is key to entrenching appropriate work/life patterns. It is evident that the tutors go to every effort to ensure the students get to class everyday and on time. “We're working with at-risk young people”, Kevin says, “so they need to know we take a real interest in what they're doing. If they don't turn up, we're on the phone to them straight away.”

Another tutor gives an example of how she used to give one student, who was living on his own, a wake up call an hour before he had to get to class. One morning he said he had no bus fare, and said: “How am I supposed to get there?” She replied ‘by placing one foot in front of the other until you get here”. And sure enough he arrived. Upon arrival, she told me, he stormed in and shouted: “Don’t you ever dare talk to me like that again, Miss!” and sat down angrily. “But at least he came in”, she said happily.  

Monday – After breakfast, the group splits into two. Half remain on site and the others go to a barge. The young people are engaged in different projects on the barge, which form the basis of the key skills work that takes place afterwards in the classroom. Activities range from engine maintenance to decoration. The students are developing practical skills which are physical, engaging and useful to their lives in the outside world. Other softer skills are developed - the students are required to moor the boat with a partner, so they (hopefully) learn the importance of co-operation – skills crucial in any work place. These social skills are what many of the students are lacking - all of whom have struggled to fit into the mainstream system.

Tuesday - The following day, the students return to the classroom where they discus the activities from the day before and exercise different ways of presenting the information they have gathered. The tutors incorporate key skills - English, maths, science, history and IT.

Students might deliver a power point presentation on the history of the boat or the surrounding industry, or write about what they have learned. They might calculate the volume of paint needed to paint the exterior of the boat, multiplied by the cost of each tin of paint. Science can be explored by analysing the engine. All of these calculations can then be put into practice the next time the students are on the boat and can be reviewed and evaluated. In this way, key skills, which often seem remote, are given a practical application.

Wednesday – The students are taken to a farm where they learn about arable agriculture and livestock. They also took part in small construction works around the farm. In the last term, they have been building a bridge for the pond, setting foundations and building a picnic area for visitors, painting and decorating.

Thursday – The students attend key skills lessons based on their day at the farm. This could involve measuring the angles necessary for the construction to designing the features they are building.

Friday – The whole day is dedicated to health and fitness. The MYAF works with the Macclesfield Sport Development Team - so the students have access to a range of excellent sporting facilities. The students also work on their school vegetable patch and have cooking lessons.

Kevin is keen for his pupils to understand where their food comes from, and how to cook it. He explains that the MYAF is trying to teach the young people life skills they have not learned at home – even simple skills, like building a cot, or eating as a family - that will give them a chance of living successful adult lives.

A personalised curriculum 

Levels of ability vary dramatically at the MYAF. All the students work individually on tasks set to their level of ability. The class sizes are small enough to ensure that each student can work on their own project, with the continual oversight and support of the tutor.

In this way, the students have a personalised curriculum, where they are encouraged to set their own objectives. This allows them to progress at their own level, but also crucially gives the students a sense of control over their education and development – a sense of control they perhaps felt they lacked in mainstream education or in their outside lives. This also gives tutors the flexibility to find topics which will inspire pupils into action.

A teacher showed me a pupil’s folder. He had been particularly reluctant to engage, but had eventually chosen to do a project on smoking. The project contained calculations of the financial cost of the cigarettes he smoked a day, worksheets investigating the effects smoking has on health and a self-penned poem on lung cancer. Whether or not this had any effect on his behaviour I don’t know - but it appeared to kick start his engagement with the centre, the tutors and the education system at large.      

Students are also involved in setting their own short term and long term objectives, which are constantly updated. Steps and routes into employment are plotted to create achievable goals. If a young person has an idea of type of work they would like to do, they are allowed to replace one day a week offsite on placement. At the moment, four boys are spending a day a week in a car garage. Two students interested in social care now volunteer at the child care centre beneath the school in the Fermain Centre.

Kevin explains that pupils are only sent on placement when they are ready. “We need to know we are not setting them up to fail”, he says - which would be disastrous for their confidence at this stage. Tutors hope these placements will lead on to further training with the employer after the students complete their compulsory education. But if this is not possible, then the skills they acquire and the reference they get should make help the pupils compete with mainstream students for apprenticeships. MYAF provision ends post-16 - which can be a falling point if future plans are not set down.    

The students receive accreditation through Youth Achievement and COPE awards, which award certificates to students completing self designated tasks. Roughly speaking, a COPE level 1 is equivalent to an E at GCSE, a COPE level 2 a B and a COPE level 3 is equivalent to an AS Level.

The students create portfolios of their work where each task is described, the objectives are written up and the task is evaluated. The student and one of his/her peers then tick it off - not the tutor. The students are required to evaluate each aspect of the task before self-certifying that they have completed it and asking another student to peer mark it.

While the idea in theory appears incredibly progressive, in reality it is somewhat arbitrary, with students showing little or no introspection into the evaluative process. On every sheet I saw each pupil had given himself full marks under every heading, as had the peers marking them.

Yet despite this, the process signals that the students are being treated as adults. The centre wants students to learn to work independently - rather than attain certificates. The students who are capable of GCSEs can arrange to do them through local schools. Next academic year, a teacher will visit for a few hours a week to teach the GCSE syllabus to selected students.

Mentoring

In the new academic year, a community mentors programme will be introduced. This project, being co-ordinated by Lynn Lownding, gives students the opportunity to be paired with a mentor for an hour a week, outside of school, for the year.

“All of these young people”, Lynn says, “have major issues which have led them to fall out of mainstream society.” The mentoring scheme tries to address the complex emotional issues belying the students behaviour and provide them with positive role models. This creates a reliable, ongoing relationship with an adult who can listen to the students, talk with them about their problems and offer ‘coping strategies’ that they haven’t picked up from their families.

By defining the mentoring relationship for a period of one year, Lynn explains that there is less chance the pupil will feel let down at some point by the mentor leaving them, or feel anxious about how long the relationship should last. It also gives a comfortable framework for the mentor and student to set goals, where they feel they are progressing towards a positive and significant end point.

Whether the young people will be responsive to the mentoring scheme is as yet unclear, but their level of engagement with the centre so far suggests that, despite their challenging behaviour, the pupils are receptive to adult intervention if properly handled.  
 
The Future of the Youth Achievement Foundation

The Youth Achievement Foundations are still in their developmental stages and, despite the overwhelming positivity of the feedback, their future is uncertain. They depend on securing ongoing funding or developing a self-sustaining economic model.

The Department for Children Schools and Families (DCSF) has entered into a three year contract - fully funding the project for the first year, partly funding it for the second year and expecting it to be self-sufficient for the third year. Any financial deficit so far has been topped up by local schools, as financing the centre in this way is cheaper than paying for personal tutors or isolation units within schools.
“Really”, Kevin tells me, “for the YAFS to be sustainable the LEAs need to get behind the project and buy into it for the future”. The cost, he explains, is only £8000 per pupil per year - which falls well below the cost of other alternative education providers. Given the success of the project this does seem like value for money.

Under current provisions, schools can meet their statutory obligations by delivering four hours of personal tutoring a week, with ‘independent study’ topping up the requirement to provide 25 hours of education a week. In the circumstances, it is no wonder that excluded children are bored, misbehaving and failing to engage with the alternative education system.

The Youth Achievement Foundations have overhauled this model by creating full, stimulating timetables which channel the young people’s energy at both a physical and intellectual level. Whether this will be the answer to getting excluded children ‘back on track’ remains to be seen – but it certainly won’t be without serious and lasting commitment to, and public investment in, these foundations and the young people’s lives.

Case Study: Julie

Julie is fifteen and was referred to MYAF by her high school. Julie had already been expelled from two schools in the area. This referral was made because Julie was on the verge of being excluded from this third school for threatening members of staff, bullying, her attitude in class and swearing. Julie has been seeing a counsellor for self-harming and alcohol abuse. Julie put herself into care, then moved in with her auntie. Her mother and father are both alcoholics and regularly physically abuse Julie. Julie is also emotionally abused - her father constantly criticises her weight. 

When Julie was referred to the MYAF, she did not live with her mother or even talk to her. But we require a meeting with a parent at a neutral venue (MYAF) to discuss the student’s academic future. After this two-hour meeting, Julie started talking to her mother. As a result of this, Julie is now seeing her mum on a regular basis - sometimes staying over.

When Julie first started at MYAF she attended every day - but refused to enter the class.  The learning mentors wanted Julie to have some fun in her life and help build up her confidence and self esteem. It took four weeks to get Julie to enter the class. At first, she complained about not wanting to be there - but now time has passed, Julie contributes to the class positively on a regular basis. 

Academically Julie is thriving at the MYAF and has already achieved her CoPE (Certificate of Personal Effectiveness) level one award. Julie attends MYAF every day - and although she talks about self-harming, she has not been doing it.

It has been a long journey for Julie. She has more self-confidence and has developed more skills to help her in life.
 
Eliza Vogel-Sharron studied English literature at Bristol university before converting to law. She is currently working as a pupil barrister in family and childcare law in Manchester.

Taken from Every Child Matters

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