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The approach to peer-to-peer development that has revived our sense of community

Sarah Jones, principal at Tavistock College, describes how they have tackled the challenges facing the local community: austerity, with the proportion of disadvantaged students increasing from 18% to 44%; increasing drug-related issues; and many students becoming bullied and harmed through social media.

When I took up post as Principal at Tavistock College in 2015, I fell in love with the school almost immediately. The school had Co-operative Status (one of the driving forces that attracted me to the place) and had always taken its commitment to the community seriously. A school that had adopted the values and principles of the International Co-operative Alliance would naturally do this.

From the outset of my appointment, we worked hard at ensuring that the tools that traditionally support social justice were both in place, and growing. We improved student voice and parent voice; we trained staff in the ‘growth mindset’; we carefully constructed the PSHE programme around the co-operative values which challenge and support resilience and social inclusion; we made constructive links with the local Chamber of Commerce; we set up a Memorandum of Understanding with a successful local independent school with a focus on Oxbridge preparation. In addition, we took serious issue with those who did not support our inclusive ethos, and aimed to always be a happy, healthy school.

But something has changed. Our community has become challenged by austerity (disadvantaged students have increased from 18% to 44%); there are increasing drug related issues (County Lines involvement is high); and we have a student body who are damaged and bullied through social media apps. Our young people are not alone in this because pressures on children have increased like never before. Sadly, our students seemed to be becoming unpleasant to each other, and to be losing all sense of hope that their lives could be better in the future. Our well-rehearsed strategies began to have unforeseen consequences. Linked to separation, a loss of identity and perceived elitism were dividing the school. On reflection, our strategies were ‘done to’ approaches and were dividing the students into those who had confidence to lead, and those who did not. Students did not like each other very much.

Enter humanutopia. By chance, and only by the skin of my teeth because I was late, I saw Graham [Moore] present at the SSAT National Conference in December 2017. I thought this looked gimmicky, but I was keen to stay for the second presentation, so I took my seat, and checked my emails. Big mistake. What Graham talked about resonated and by the time the students finished speaking on the stage I was hooked. Without delay, humanutopia were book to work with our male-dominated, rather troublesome Y10 students.

During our initial ‘Who am I?’ session, it took about ten minutes to see the potential impact that a partnership with humanutopia could have. We undertook a series of follow up sessions, becoming an official partner school in the process, aimed at developing interdependence and hope in our student body, dispelling myths of what students should be and focusing on what they could be.

Our initial volunteer army was made up of about 30 year 10 students. These were trained as Heroes in peer mentoring, received Icon development sessions and started supporting our ever growing and changing demographic, focusing on disadvantaged students through the transition process from our 23 feeder primary schools. With the help and support of Katie Taylor from humanutopia, we’ve since developed and extended our partnership, rolling out ‘Who am I?’ to two more year groups, enabling our current crop of Heroes to be stronger than ever. They now number 50.

This year, the students have set up and designed a room devoted to our humanutopia work. Independently, they have made it a comfortable environment for mentoring sessions, and they use it for drop ins (for our youngest and most vulnerable students), and directed mentoring guided by our pastoral team. By the end of the year, our Icon Heroes team will have led all of our 244 year 8 students in self-development sessions aimed at increasing their happiness, confidence and ultimately employability as they shift their aspirations to greater heights. By the end of 2020 all of our students will have had direct and indirect input from humanutopia and will be self-led, self-directed and self-motivated young people aiming to improve their outcomes, both socially and academically. This year we are also extending the programme to the young people of our learning community by handing over two whole days of our transition process to our year 10 Heroes, and I know that they will be successful.

The humanutopia impact is growing, but we have a way to go. There is a persistent legacy of social division and disaffection, but we know we are on the right road. Even Heroes have bad days. That is why the ‘me on a good day’ wall of tiles completed by students is so important. If it’s a bad day, they don’t wear their tie and badge, but they get through. However, the impact of working with humanutopia is tangible.

Visitors say how welcoming our student body is, our academic outcomes continue to improve, and students are largely kind and helpful again. The humanutopia programme has a refreshing theoretical framework, built on constructivism rather than behaviourism. This is why it is more impactful than our previous attempts to resolve social inequality.

Students examine themselves, and are not told how they should be or what they should be doing. They work these things out for themselves. The idea that it’s ‘okay to be different’ is now prevailing. Students smile more, make eye contact with strangers and their confidence has improved. The programme encourages self-reflection, self-awareness and self-direction. Fundamentally, it is about knowing yourself and knowing how to improve. The strength of humanutopia for us has been peer-to-peer development. This is set up to be mutually developmental and not a top down social support process that leads to perceptions of envy and elitism. Student leadership is now coming from groups other than the traditional. We have children with additional needs leading others, and it has engaged disadvantaged students more than before.

Hope and optimism prevail. Students make better choices. Importantly, they are now making the change not out of fear of reprisal or from compliance and a willingness to please, but because they see a future for themselves. We have little need to take heavy handed approaches to poor behaviour, because students themselves tell us we can’t exclude poor choices out of people. But we can model good behaviours and work towards them. Students become more self-regulating.

In short, our sense of community has been revived and our sense of family is returning. We trust humanutopia – they are flexible, adaptable and passionate. Working with them has been one of the best decisions we have made as a school.

This article, which supports SSAT’s Fighting for Deep Social Justice campaign, was originally published as a series of case studies which explore how schools are working towards achieving deep social justice for their young people. Learn more

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