Our society leaves too many young people behind. More often than not, these are
the most vulnerable young people, and it is through no fault of their own. In the eleven years since The Centre for Education and Youth was set up, our research has focused on getting under the skin of the issues that lead young people to become marginalised in the education system, and in turn, society.
We have now drawn together this body of work in a new way, creating a book that explains the many reasons young people in England get forgotten. Grounded in evidence and practice, ‘Young People on the Margins’ showcases first-hand examples of the areas where needs are not being addressed, but also highlights where trends are being bucked, and draws out the action teachers, youth workers and policymakers can and must take.
In this article I introduce some of the fundamental issues the book tackles, and how we can help to address them.
Chapter I: Pushed out and left out: Understanding school exclusion
‘Young People on the Margins’ begins with CfEY Chief Executive Loic Menzies’ experiences of teaching in North West London, where part of his job involved working with young people on the edge of exclusion. Loic explains the frustration of seeing a pupil who has real potential, but is also showing “complete unacceptable behaviour”, beginning to slide “inexorably” away from the mainstream.
Young people can be pushed out of school in different ways, either through an authorised permanent or “fixed-term” exclusion, or through unofficial means, often referred to as “off-rolling”. However it happens, Loic explains that school exclusion has an impact on the qualifications a young person gets, their future employment, their risk of being involved in youth violence or criminality, and their mental health.
To protect against this slippery slope, we need changes from policy makers, organisations and practitioners working with young people directly. One of several suggestions Loic puts forward is for schools and alternative providers to develop federations, multi-academy trusts or other partnerships to make it easier for staff and expertise to move between different types of provision. This, he says, would also help pupils to access specialist support from within the mainstream, or to be reintegrated after leaving it.
Chapter II: Special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)
In chapter II, Bart Shaw, CfEY’s Head of Policy, writes about a watershed moment in his career as a Geography teacher, when he realised how easy it can be to underestimate the capabilities of a young person with SEND. Fighting against these assumptions is the day-to-day reality for parents and carer of young people with SEND, Bart points out. They face an endless struggle in advocating for their children to ensure they can access to the right support that will enable them to thrive.
Part of the reason young people with SEND find themselves marginalised is because of
negative attitudes to disability, stigma, and discrimination within society. These play out
in schools as they do everywhere else. Young people with SEND can find themselves marginalised in mainstream schools, due to issues such as social ostracisation by peers, informal exclusion from lessons, and the relatively low prioritisation of young people with SEND by school leaders.
Bart calls for more collaboration and cross-pollination between the special school and the mainstream sectors to tackle this problem. More movement of teachers and support
staff between special and mainstream provision would allow more sharing of ideas about how to improve practice when working with children with SEND in either setting, while also acting as helpful professional development that could encourage teachers to stay in the profession longer.
Chapter III: Mental health
I chose to write about mental health in this chapter, in part because of its impact on my childhood. I struggled with an eating disorder for years and have first-hand experience of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), and the stigma that a mental health condition can bring. From my experience, one of the defining features of a mental health problem is the distance it puts between you and the people around you, and one of the signs of recovery, or coping at least, is rebuilding those connections and coming back in from the margins.
In my chapter I look at the different factors that can influence a young person’s mental health, for example we know that teenage girls tend to be particularly at risk of certain types of mental health problems, especially between the ages of 17 and 19, and children from low-income families are four times more likely to experience mental health problems compared to children from higher-income families.
To support young people with mental health conditions, we need to identify mental ill health as early as possible and act quickly. The longer a person is dealing with mental ill health alone, the harder it becomes to unravel reinforcing behaviours and get to the root on the problem (which will be different for everyone).
I also call for more joined up thinking across services, which is a theme that connects a number of chapters in the book. Everyone talks about the need for joined up services but it’s sometimes hard to know how to bring that about. A desire to show how to make this approach a reality was one of the driving forces behind our decision to write this book. Clear lines of communication are vital in ensuring meaningful, wraparound care.
Chapter IV: Area-based inequalities and the new frontiers in education policy
In this chapter, Dr Sam Baars, CfEY’s Director of Research and Operations, presents his specialist topic of area-based inequalities. Sam looks at some of the key reasons why, after more than 50 years of area-based interventions in education policy, there are still huge disparities in young people’s outcomes in the UK based on where they live. He reflects on some of the different schools and areas he’s visited as part of his research and how some of them felt strangely similar despite being at opposite ends of the country.
Sam explains that area-based education policies have tended to target areas based on a broad notion of deprivation – is there deprivation here or not – rather than aiming to distinguish between different “types” of deprived area. How an area contributes to educational disadvantage is often “weakly articulated” in policy texts – in many deprived areas, including parts of London, young people’s educational outcomes in the aggregate actually offer no particular cause for concern.
Sam argues that clearer understanding of how neighbourhood contexts shape young people’s outcomes would strengthen efforts to tackle area-based inequalities and help us to spot common issues. We can upgrade the conversations we have about this issue by paying more attention young people’s understandings of the places they live in and calling for policies that address the root causes of area-based inequalities.
Chapter V: Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller young people
In Chapter V, Ellie Mulcahy, Head of Research at CfEY, and Abi Angus, Research Associate, explore the barriers facing Gypsy, Roma and Traveller young people, whose outcomes have seen little change over the past century. At GCSE only 14% of Gypsy/Roma young people and 28% Irish Traveller pupils achieve grades 4–9 in GCSE English and Maths compared to 64% nationally, while less than 10% of pupils from these groups achieve strong passes (grade 5–9) at GCSE English and Maths.
GRT groups remain some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised communities in the country, facing racism and discrimination alongside cultural and material barriers such as a nomadic lifestyle and difficulty navigating official systems. This chapter includes the experiences of Cassie, a law graduate and Romany Gypsy who “bucked the trend” by entering and completing higher education, something that very few Romany Gypsy young people do. Cassie tells how even after years of hard work to access a leading academic institution, prejudice and bigotry continued to follow her:
“To have a lecturer make a joke about “pikeys” and for 200 people around me to be actually belly-laughing while I sat there knowing I’m from that community and actually “pikey” is a derogatory term… It’s the fear of things like that, it’s one of the reasons that people pull kids out of school and why they are scared of university…”
Ellie and Abi call on politicians to lead by example, making it clear that prejudice, discrimination, and racist remarks are unacceptable. Schools and youth organisations should work to build an inclusive ethos that is respectful of GRT culture. Teachers and support staff can play their part by taking a flexible approach to including pupils who travel, for example by allowing them to have a part-time timetable and providing resources which support distance learning.
Chapter VI: Children who come into contact with social services
A child’s likelihood of going into care is influenced their family’s income, but also where in the country they live, explains CfEY’s Head of Engagement Will Millard in Chapter VI. As with access to other services such as support for SEND, there is a postcode lottery for these young people. Almost three quarters of children are placed within 20 miles of their family home and nearly 6 in 10 placements into secure homes, children’s homes and supported accommodation are out-of-area placements.
But it is not just going into care that affects young people’s outcomes. Children in need of support from social services, but who are not in care, are more likely than their peers to be absent from school and are also more at risk of permanent exclusion than children who are looked after, although the latter are more likely to face a fixed term exclusion. Overall, children who have needed a social worker are 10 times as likely to be taught in Alternative Provision compared to their peers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, research by the Department for Education shows that children who have needed a social worker are half as likely to pass English and maths GCSEs as those who have not.
Will writes that it is vital that professionals coming into contact with children in care and on the edge of care ensure these children have the support they need. He argues that social workers and local authorities should wherever possible provide families with early help, for example through support with issues like substance abuse, domestic violence, and poor mental health. Rather than removing children once their families have reached crisis point, this could tackle some of the underlying reasons why parents find parenting difficult and help more families to stay together.
Chapter VII: Education without a place to call home
In this chapter of the book, former CfEY Associate Kate Bowen-Viner, who is currently studying for her PhD at the University of Bristol, tells the stories of young people trying to balance education and homelessness. Kate describes how, as an NQT, she placed a lot of importance on building a close connection between home and school in order to support her form group – but did not consider what the education system can do when young people have no home to go back to.
While official government data collections on youth homelessness are likely to be underestimates, they are still shocking. In 2018–19, 71,589 young people in England approached their local authority because they were homeless or at risk of homelessness. Kate explains that it is not just poverty that leads to youth homelessness, with Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic groups, the LGBTQ+ community, young offenders, and carer leavers all more likely to become homeless.
The young people’s stories in this chapter are heart-breaking, describing experiences such as domestic abuse and bereavement. They tell of a lack of understanding from school or college staff, and the profound challenges that arise from having no reliable structure or safe base for day-to-day life. However, the young people Kate writes about also show impressive resilience and clear aspirations for the future, which deserve as much support as possible.
Kate highlights the need for teachers to be aware of warning signs that a young person might be experiencing homelessness, such as low or declining attendance; lack of engagement and concentration; or tiredness and a “dishevelled” appearance. She explains that practitioners should flag any concerns using safeguarding procedures, since legal frameworks mean that policymakers are obliged to provide many young homeless people with accommodation and support. Kate also stresses the importance of pastoral support and a flexible approach in supporting young people who are homeless to continue with their education an achieve their goals.
Chapter VIII: Conclusion
Building a fairer society and an equitable education system rests on bringing in young people on the margins. The promise that lies behind the arguments made in this book is that society can make this happen. Getting to grips with individual stories and identifying what makes young people vulnerable will enable us to intervene early and take action. The good news is that there are overlaps between the needs of the young people in this book, meaning that an approach that benefits one group is likely to benefit others. We must ensure society supports all young people, including those on the margins, to make a fulfilling transition into adulthood no matter what their story.
Alix Robertson, Associate at think and action-tank The Centre for Education and Youth (CfEY), started out as an English teacher in a secondary school, where she mentored vulnerable pupils. A desire to interrogate challenges in the education system led her to take an MA in journalism. She went on to work for sister papers FE Week and Schools Week, winning awards for her investigations, before moving into research.
- Menzies, L. and Baars, S. (Eds.) (2021) Young People on the margins: Priorities for Action in Education and Youth, Abingdon: Routledge. Available at: https://www.routledge.com/Young-People-on-the-Margins-Priorities-for-Action-in-Education-and-Youth/Menzies-Baars/p/book/9781138360464