This research project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, examined the relationship between the autobiographical narratives of troubled adolescents excluded from school and their re-engagement with education. The investigation is based on the assumption that the personal narratives – which students have constructed to make sense of their lives – have a strong influence on how they perceive themselves as learners. The participants were thirty five, 15-16 year old pupils attending alternative education provision in London. In the main part of the study students were interviewed about their personal recollections of their time at school, and the influence these experiences have had on them. This was then followed by consultations with an advisory group of senior staff from alternative provision centres and conducting pilot interventions alongside teachers in two alternative provisions in London. The focus of the pilot narrative and solution focused interventions was to increase students’ re-engagement with education. This section of the website provides a description of the project and a summary of the main findings and recommendations for educationalists working with students excluded from school.
Why are adolescent students’ personal narratives important?
It is in adolescence when young people start to reflect on and try to make sense of their lives. Indeed adolescents at the age of 15-16 are more reflective, more self-aware and less impulsive than they were only a few years previously. In addition, by the time children reach mid to late adolescence they have developed the ability to look back, and to varying degrees make sense of their past experiences in relation to themselves. In the other words, they have begun to form an identity which is informed by their memories of home and school. The way in which they remember the past, however, is not an accurate portrayal but a subjective story shaped by their selective memories. In order to make sense of a wide range of different experiences, which are often disconnected from one another, adolescents (and adults) prune their memories to construct a coherent narrative about themselves and the person they think they are and would like to be.
Most importantly, the personal narratives which students have about themselves in relation to education are not inert historical events but recollections that serve to maintain the perceptions they have of themselves as learners. For instance, a student in year 10 who does not consider himself able to learn effectively at school will have a personal back-story populated by events which help to maintain this description of himself. There will be episodes where he could not relate to the work and was bored, did not do the work, did not get on well with teachers, misbehaved and was sent out of class. Yet, there will also have been positive experiences, of when the individual did have constructive relationships with teachers and did learn at school. These memories, however, have become marginalised exceptions pushed aside by the dominant narrative of being misunderstood and unable to learn at school. What this example illustrates is how personal narratives, constructed by the individual, can help to fix and maintain the negative view an adolescent student holds about school and himself as a learner. Therefore helping the young person create a more positive and helpful back-story may enable him to acquire a more constructive view of himself as a learner.
As will become clear in this report, for adolescents excluded from school the best way to start challenging the views they may hold of themselves as students is not by simply going over past events. Instead it is more productive to concentrate on recollecting and re-framing past and recent events and highlighting specific areas of progress. In this way students start to re-acquire a positive view of themselves as learners which then helps them to remember their earlier experiences of education in a more positive light.
• To identify what students have found to be to be obstructive and constructive in their school lives at school
• To highlight the impact of past events on students’ current perception of themselves and their education
• To make recommendations for practice by providing the outline for a Narrative/Solution Focused Intervention referred to here as Fresh Start.