Can we help children find the appropriate version of themselves?

This weekend I was fortunate enough to have been invited to one of the most inspirational events that I have attended for a long time. The Joshua Ribera Awards celebrate the achievement of young people (this year 19 of them) in alternative provisions, who have worked hard to improve both personally and academically. Whilst the evening was a huge celebration of these young people, whose pride and joy was evident when they were collecting their awards, I couldn’t help but ask myself, could we work smarter (not harder) to support these young people earlier on their school career?

For those of you who have read anything I have written before you will know how passionate I am about making sure the transition from Key Stage 2 to 3 is successful for all. I found myself wondering what sort of a start to secondary school the young people on Saturday night had had. I reflected on students I had worked with over the years and if I could have done something differently? Let me be very clear, I am not suggesting that school do not work hard to support children through some very difficult situations, but can we/should we think differently for some children? Alison Cope, the organiser of the Joshua Ribera Awards has tirelessly fought to support young people and help them to find a positive outlook on life, their life. Since tragically loosing her own son (who had also been through the AP system) at the tender age of 18 she has ploughed her energy into working with schools and children. Her words are inspiring, emotive and make me question, ‘could my attitude have made more of a difference to some young people whose school career didn’t start very well and certainly ended badly for them?’

I think back to Simon*. Simon found it difficult to settle in lessons in year 7. Nothing major, he was a chatty lad but he hadn’t quite learned the etiquette needed for secondary school. He and I had a great working relationship, I was cheeky, he was cheeky, we bounced off each other and he worked well in my lessons. However, he hadn’t quite got the hang of understanding that other teachers were not so cheeky! They did not appreciate a little bit of banter in lessons and where he and I would have laughed off an off the cuff reply, other staff viewed this as rude. We are all human and these different personality’s and attitudes are not the problem, of course they are not but my concern here is, could I have worked differently with Simon to help him understand is audience a little better? He found himself struggling in lessons, his reputation as a ‘cheeky lad’ was seen as a more negative trait than positive. He was earning behaviour points left right and centre and became argumentative when challenged, as he felt the system was being unfair. You can imagine where Simon’s story is going.

Simon is not a one of case, I am sure we have all worked with these young people in our schools. The child who starts off as a cheeky lady/lad in year 7 soon becomes the girl/boy with more ‘behaviour points’ than the rest of her/his class. Then Yr 8 begins and there are a whole round of new class teachers. Some aware of the reputation, some not. Some preferring pupils to work in isolation, others in groups. Some enjoying the ‘banter/chatter’ in class, others seeing that as disrespectful. When I think of the child’s life in this context I wonder if we have created a minefield for some of our pupils, having to learn so much about new people and systems annually!

I’m not sure I have any answers to this, how could I? All of our young people are so different, they have a different home life, personality and outlook on life. We, as adults understand this. We are very skilled at knowing our audience and knowing which child will appreciate a bit of sarcasm and who won’t. We know which of our pupils will respond to the ‘teacher look’ and who need a bit more ‘guidance’ when we have the time to get to know this. How are we ensuring that the children learn these skills though? How can we ensure that they learn to be the appropriate version of themselves? Do we need to think of new ways to help the pupils understanding the need for this but also give them the skills to be able to so? Is it right to assume that because the majority of our pupils have got this sussed, that they all should?

Once again I also ask – whose job is it to help the children understand these subtle but important differences between primary and secondary school? The safety of every member of staff knowing the pupil but more importantly, the pupil knowing the staff. Knowing when to ‘stop’! Can we avoid some young people ending up in alternative provision. Of course there will always be a cohort of children who do not suit mainstream school and will benefit from an AP but how many of those settings have waiting lists, or have to turn away pupils as they are full. Can we make a bigger difference in KS3 by thinking and behaving differently?

*Whilst Simon is a pupil I worked with, it is not his real name!