The GMNCR has been working in alternative education centres, schools and youth clubs using the Community Reporting methodology to gather young people’s thoughts on mainstream education and early school leaving. This feature shares some of the findings from these workshops, and the stories told and gathered in them. 

More practical and creative lessons are required

Both teaching support staff and young people themselves felt that lessons can sometimes be too academic and therefore not meeting everyone’s needs. One young man who has behavioural difficulties did not enjoy most academic lessons but stated, “My best lesson is P.E due to it being physical.” Another young woman in a similar position said that “Science is the best lesson”, again referencing the practical aspects of the class such as science experiments. Paul, a support worker for young people in an alternative education provision, talked about how, in order to meet a wider range of needs, the curriculum needs to be far more practical and vocational. He said, “A lot of young people are very hands-on, good at vocational things, so maybe not academically strong but put a tool in their hand and they can do anything with it!”

Physical education seemed to be a particularly popular subject. When young people were asked what changes they would make to school or the curriculum, several young men answered with “Double P.E” or “More P.E lessons”. In one school, drama lessons had recently been cut from the curriculum. The students were extremely dissatisfied with this and felt that the sessions should be brought back. When discussing this, they argued that in addition to teaching drama skills, the lesson is also important because it teaches skills such as teamwork and communication. These same students also stated their favourite lessons were now art and music, further emphasising that creative and practical subjects were popular amongst young people than traditional academic ones.

Home lives and responsibilities can impact school attendance

Two of the young women in the group have additional duties as carers at home – it was not clear whether this was for parents or siblings, or how much time there duties took up – but it had impacted on school attendance and also on their behaviours. Both of these young people were accessing a very small alternative education centre that met their needs better than a larger, mainstream schooling.

When asked about different reasons for early school leaving among young people in the UK, Steph, a support worker at the centre said, “Some of them might have responsibilities going on at home so they feel like they haven’t got time to go to school. There might be pressures from parents and grandparents maybe to look after younger siblings or older people”. However, it wasn’t just care duties that young people mentioned in relation to home lives affecting school. Young people also talked about parents getting divorced and family bereavement - issues that clearly affect a young person’s mental wellbeing and can be a distraction from their learning and detrimental to their development.

School can have a negative impact on young peoples’ mental health

In addition to stress sometimes being caused by home lives, many young people stated that school was ‘stressful’ or made them ‘feel stressed’. When asked why some young people may leave school early, one young man replied, “Because it stresses them out. There’s too much work and the teachers are always moaning”. The leading causes of this stress appeared to be the workload in school – both homework and school work – but people also mentioned conflicts with both teachers and other students and exams. There was a lot of talk about worrying about exams, and almost every young person involved in the project said that they worried about exams. One young woman said, “I don’t like exams, I always fail” indicating low self-worth in addition to stress. Oscar, a young man at risk of exclusion, again mentioned this stress in relation to academic failure saying, "I think some people leave school early because either they can't take it, or they can't deal with all the stress. So they just think you might as well just go out of it instead of having to keep going through stress for something that you might not succeed with." When designing the ‘Perfect School’, two young men suggested that teachers need to offer more support in terms of mental wellbeing but also in terms of supporting studies and learning rather than just focussing on exams and grades. In essence a more well-rounded pastoral support was being called for.

Relationships between young people and teachers can be challenging

Two young people talked about how they found it challenging to follow rules, and that this meant frequent conflicts with teachers. Arvin said that if he could change anything about school he would “make the teachers less strict” while one young woman said the thing she disliked most about school was “seeing teachers and having arguments with them”. In one pupil referral unit, one young man said, “Good teachers are negotiative” – meaning that good teachers are willing to discuss things and negotiate with young people rather than just setting inflexible rules. There were also instances of young people talking about being targeted by teachers. One young man stated “The teachers are always picking on me” and Kayden, a young man in a different school, said, “I know people who think teachers pick on them”.

Although the majority of young people who talked about conflict with teachers appeared to blame the teachers, or describe them in a negative light, some young people recognised than this conflict between students and teachers can be caused by student behaviour. Oscar stated, “If I could change anything I think I would change the phone rule. I’d say you have to have it switched off because most people, when they get caught with it, they seem to argue back and it causes a lot of trouble… if you were to change it, it would mean less trouble and less work for the teachers to stress on… and less arguing with the teacher.”

Despite all of this, school does provide opportunities for forming positive relationships by making friends and socialising. Several young people mentioned that the thing they enjoyed about school was spending time with friends and Kayden said, “I think school is hard at times but when you’re with your friends it can be really, really fun”. These peer relationships were seen as being really valuable to the young people.

School should provide a range of learning opportunities

A small number of young people did talk about the benefits of education and learning. One young woman recognised that, “You get to come and learn to help yourself” and Matthew stated “You get an education and you can get a good job after.” Although Tilly did say she felt you should be allowed to leave school at age 13, “because I’m 13 now”, the majority of young people in discussions disagreed with her. Two young people felt that you should be allowed to leave school at 13 but only to go onto an apprenticeship or similar vocational training. The rest of the young people in discussions felt that 13 was too young leave school, stating that young people aren’t yet ‘mature enough’ to make that decision or to get a job.

One young man who had previously had a lot of difficulties in school talked about how he started to value school and learning more when provided with a more incentive-based and fun education. He was attending a support programme for students struggling with behaviour, and this programme offered a mix of recreational and educational practical activities. He said, “The incentive for me to go out on a Thursday and do fun stuff like mountain biking helped me want to do better in school”.

Young people also recognised that school provides learning opportunities, but felt that these opportunities could be tailored more to teach life skills or ‘real world’ skills. For example, one group of young people suggested, “In P.E, instead of making us do Cross Country they should teach us things like survival skills, like how to build a fire without a lighter” and “In maths, instead of teaching us algebra and Pythagoras they should teach us useful things like how to budget and work out a bill.

What can we learn?

Overall then, young people and staff working on the project agreed that the curriculum needs to be far more practical and creative in order to keep young people engaged and meet everyone’s learning needs. There also appears to be a need for a curriculum that young people find relevant, and the teaching of life skills could play a big role in this. Young people need more pastoral support in terms of mental wellbeing and dealing with stress, and there also needs to be more understanding that young people’s lives outside of school have just as much impact on their development as their lives inside school. Although much of the young people’s stories expressed negativity towards traditional schooling, there was also the acknowledgement that school played an important role providing a space to socialise with friends and a general acceptance of the value of education to people’s lives.

Other stories about pupils at risk of being excluded or have been excluded from Italy, Hungary and Spain can be found here.

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