Summary of the Findings and Final Report

SUMMARY OF THE FINDINGS

Detailed information on the project and description of its findings are available in the FINAL REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS

How helpful do adolescents find it to talk about their past experiences of school

About 20% of the adolescents inter viewed said that they found it helpful to talk about past events. Most adolescents, however,  said they did not find it particularly helpful simply to provide their educational life story. For them to ruminate on all the difficulties they had was not perceived to be particularly constructive, possibly because it threatened to overshadow the fragile progress they were making. These findings are in line with other narrative research on vulnerable adolescents which did not identify an association between reminiscing about difficult past events and well-being or an increase in pro-social behaviour (McLean, Wood, & Breen, 2013; Sales, Merill, & Fivush, 2013). The indications are therefore that simply revisiting the past may not be constructive. The implications for practice are that instead of simply recollecting past events, it is more constructive to draw attention to those times when things have been going well and to highlight how patterns of behaviour can be changed.  For instance, excluded adolescents were often perform relatively well at primary school and there are relationship patterns with teacher which have already begun to change.

*The following three sections are based on some of the findings published in a forthcoming article on the autobiographical memories of adolescents excluded from school.

*From primary, to secondary school, to alternative provision
Students viewed life at primary school in a much more positive light than their experience of secondary school. They contrasted the child centred and personalised culture of primary school with the institutional and impersonal ethos of secondary school. Not surprisingly, such a negative view of secondary school in relation to their primary school years was intensified by their exclusion.
Students who recalled episodes of problematic behaviour while at primary school recognised teachers as helpful in addressing their problems in a constructive manner most of the time. Likewise, at the PRU adolescents were appreciative of the staff’s efforts at adopting a personal approach which took into account individual differences and circumstances, and contrasted this experience with that of secondary school where institutional sanction, ranging from being put on report, to fixed term exclusions, where applied. Some of the students also recognised that they were not mature enough to cope with a secondary school system which allowed them to be more independent but also expected them to do their work and abide by the rules.

*Difficulties at home and distressing life events
A sizeable proportion of the students who took part in the study made a direct connection between a troubled family life and problematic behaviour at school. They recalled taking their frustration and anger into school when things started to go wrong at home. Difficulties at home included both long term issues (such as a parent’s mental health problems) and life events (such as domestic disputes and parent separation). In most cases domestic disagreements ending in the separation of parents usually occurred while the students were attending primary school and it is here that students remember some of their most violent outbursts and the beginning of their difficulties at school.

*Parental and Peer group influence
Besides those students who specifically highlighted difficulties at home the majority of students did not refer to their parents as having had any negative or positive influence on their education. While in some cases this may have been because they did not want talk about their parents it was also apparent that parents did not feature substantially in their thinking about themselves and school. Instead, their narratives highlighted the extensive influence of their peers. In particular they described how they sought social status and perceived popularity by acting aggressively and acting out in front of their peers.

Insight gained from the Pilot Interventions
Taking into consideration the finding that in most cases students do not find it helpful simply to talk about past experiences the pilot interventions consisted of a narrative/solution focused approach, conducted by four teachers and one learning mentor. The aim of these interventions was to improve students’ engagement with education by emphasizing and reminding them of the progress they were making and helping them to construct a positive narrative about their education. The outcome from these pilot interventions was mixed in part because the participants included students who were coming to the end of their school career and because life events affected the regular participation of two students.

The pilot interventions provided the following insights:
• The students who participated in the intervention were in year 10 and 11. For some of the year 11 students in particular this form of intervention was too late to make a substantial amount of difference. Although older students are more reflective and able to talk about and reconsider past events more easily, it may be better to work with students in year 8 and 9 as they have more time to change their attitude and approach to learning while still at school;
• That students’ attendance and life events (such as recurring difficulties at home, or difficulties with other adolescents) impacted immensely on the progress of the intervention. The progress made was often fragile and therefore susceptible to becoming overwhelmed by critical life event;
• That meetings between the teacher/mentor and the student needed to take place on a predictable and regular basis. It was often difficult to achieve such regular meetings in alternative provision where staff, and senior staff in particular, have to respond to unpredictable events.
• To also involve parents in the intervention. The findings from the narrative interviews suggest that there is an absence of the parental voice in excluded students’ thoughts about their education. In some of the interventions it also became apparent that it would have been constructive to involve parents directly to support the intervention.

Consultation with the Advisory Group
A substantial number of issue were discussed at the advisory group meetings. I highlight two important observations, which I found to be particularly helpful and insightful:

A person centred approach and the transition into post-16 education: The advisory group highlighted individual difference and that it is therefore necessary to work with students as individuals. Most alternative provision adopts a person centred approach which secondary schools are not able to provide. Most students respond well to this whole person approach, their behaviour improves and they re-engage with education. However, because of the high level of support they often lack the self-organisation and self-motivation to become independent learners who are able to make a successful transition into post-16 education. In addition, the confidence they gained as learners in alternative provision is often fragile so that they may not possess the resilience to manage by themselves in an adult learning environment.

Parental and Peer Influence: The extent to which adolescents are influenced by their peers (rather than their parents) was supported by the advisory group. Particularly in early adolescence their peer group becomes central to their lives at school and teachers no longer have an important paternal/maternal role to play. They enjoy socialising with their friends and gain self-esteem from spending time with like-minded friends rather than the work which appears to be of limited relevance to their lives and which they are often not very good at. Then after the first one or two years at secondary school – and when the work becomes much more demanding – it becomes a case of navigating their way through the school day by doing as little work as possible and spending time socialising and hanging out with their peers. By this stage, they no longer gain self-esteem from their work in school but from the interactions they have with their peers.

Detailed information on the project and description of its findings are available in the FINAL REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS