Opportunities and relationships

Our third Summer Series event focused on one question: What makes the difference for a child or young person who is disadvantaged, vulnerable or in crisis?

It is a big question. And one with no easy answers. The one thing that we know for certain is that every young person is different, every situation is different and that circumstances change rapidly, so what works one week might not work the next. In schools across the country, skilled members of staff do everything they can to support young people to thrive personally and academically.

But it is frequently an uphill task. Even before the current cost of living crisis, huge numbers of young people were living in poverty in the UK. Data from the Child Poverty Action Group shows that 3.9 million children were living in poverty in the UK in 2020-21. That equates to 27% of children, or eight children in a class of 30. This situation becomes more acute for particular demographics – 46% of children from Black and minority ethnic groups are now in poverty and 49% of children living in lone-parent families. With poverty not only comes poor access to adequate nutrition and health care, but also frequently a lack of security and consistency. It is also worth noting that 75% of children living in poverty live in a household where at least one person works – in fact in many cases family members are working multiple jobs, sometimes at irregular and antisocial hours, which can add another layer of uncertainty and instability. https://cpag.org.uk/child-poverty/child-poverty-facts-and-figures

We operate in an education system which is quite rigid, which can be particularly challenging for those young people who need the most flexibility and understanding. Terminal exams and frequent formal assessments make it more difficult for teachers to work flexibly with those whose circumstances are unpredictable. There is also a widely held view that tough approaches are required with young people presenting with challenging behaviours, which can prove counter productive. Speaking at the event, Gerry Robinson, Executive Headteacher at Haringey Learning Partnership, suggested that perhaps we need to consider the most serious incidents as a safeguarding concern rather than a disciplinary matter. When a young person reaches a crisis point, it becomes all the more urgent to maintain communication – with that young person, between home and school and between relevant agencies. However, in practice, a crisis point might result in exclusion and the disruption of lines of communication.

Effective communication and positive relationships emerged as a theme across the event, with all speakers stressing the vital importance of ensuring that young people are known and heard. Zoe Morris, Headteacher at Chorlton High School described the impact of their student coaching programme and the importance of students knowing that someone is looking out for them and taking an interest. For our most vulnerable students, a positive and consistent adult relationship can transform their experience of school. Garry Ratcliffe, CEO of The Galaxy Trust, talked about the need to build on particularly positive relationships and Tom Baxter, from Football Beyond Borders echoed this, suggesting that in some cases there is a need to actively prioritise the maintenance of these relationships, for example when timetabling and allocating form tutors. Building trust in relationships takes time.

Our opening speaker Dr Theodore Ransaw, from Michigan State University, spoke about the opportunities that a child or young person needs to thrive – opportunities to learn, opportunities to be healthy and opportunities to develop as a whole person. This can be about recognising where a child is inadvertently missing out on opportunities because of their circumstances – something explored by Kay Batkin from the Youth Sports Trust. Those opportunities – to find a new talent, broaden horizons, connect with new people and create an awareness of possibilities can be transformational.

Underpinning everything, our panellists agreed, is always a strong sense of beliefs and values. All of the headteachers on our panel talked about the need to sense check all decisions against core principles – revisiting both personal motivation and the whole school values. The school community can be vital to a young person in crisis, providing stability, consistency and positive relationships with adults. Building a sense of belonging among all members of the community is vital, ensuring that every child knows that they are important and cared about.

Janeen Hayat, from the Fair Education Alliance, reflected on the saying “it takes a village to raise a child,” a view reiterated throughout the event. Bringing about meaningful change for our young people requires partnership working between schools, parents and the local community. It also requires partnership work from across society to continue the fight for deep social justice, highlighting the work that is making a difference and the work that is still to be done.

There is still time to get involved with SSAT’s Summer Series events. Our face-to-face event ‘Learning, teaching and raising aspiration: keys to tackling disadvantage and discrimination’ takes place on 7th July. Secondary members can access one free place through their membership. Find out more.

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