Supporting young people who are at risk of underachieving – whether this is due to behavioural issues, problems at home or a lack of self-confidence – is an ongoing challenge for secondary schools.
Research has shown that the best outcomes for young people occur when interventions are long-term and work within mainstream education. However, teachers have told us that the biggest barrier they face when trying to support young people at risk of underachieving is a lack of time and resources.
This is no surprise, as teachers and budgets are under increasing pressure. But, it is also vital that we work with teachers to overcome these barriers and ensure that no young person is left behind. The cost of educational underachievement for the current generation of young people is estimated at £22 billion, according to The Prince’s Trust and RBS Cost of Exclusion report in 2010, so it is clear that we cannot afford to not do anything about this issue.
At The Prince’s Trust, we meet young people every day who struggle at school and end up falling into a vicious cycle of unemployment, low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness.
The Trust runs its xl and Fairbridge programmes to support these vulnerable young people, preventing exclusions, improving attainment and giving them the skills they need to find a job in the future. Through the xl programme we work within schools across the UK, using an informal approach and giving young people the space and the attention they need to develop confidence and a sense of ownership over their work – often for the first time in their lives.
I met one young person recently who had experienced a family break up and tragically had to come to terms with the death of a parent. As a result he began to truant from school, developing problems that took control of his life.
His teachers recommended that he join the xl club and the change in him was remarkable. Over the following two years he built up his skills and confidence and his attendance reached almost 100 per cent. He passed his GCSEs and is now studying IT at college – something he never thought he would be able to achieve before.
It is young people like this that we need to support to ensure that they are well-equipped to move into a positive future after school.
To do this, it is clearly vital that our programmes are engaging and fit within the school timetable. The Prince’s Trust works closely with teachers to ensure our schemes are structured but flexible enough to work for students with differing needs, as well as offering a recognised qualification and keeping the running costs low.
Flexibility is key when working with these young people, as teachers will often have to support young people with a complex mix of learning and social needs. At Crown Woods College in Eltham, one of the schools running the xl programme, the student body is extremely diverse as the school is situated on the edge of three different boroughs.
The challenge for teachers was to introduce an intervention that worked in bringing together pupils who would not normally mix in school and who are dealing with a wide range of issues, including behavioural problems, disabilities, learning difficulties, low attendance and extremely low self-confidence.
For Neil Harrington, head of the xl programme at Crown Woods, having the right people involved is important to bringing these pupils together. The school has three advisors working with the xl club, all with different backgrounds and personalities, to ensure that every student has at least one member of staff that they can build a good relationship with.
The structure of the Trust’s programme is also flexible and is based around a framework of modules to give teachers guidance and ideas for activities, while allowing schools to make their own decisions on how best to meet the needs of the young people.
For Elizabeth Hall, principal at Longslade Community College in Leicester, the programme offers a fresh, flexible, practical and positive approach to learning, helping young people realise that they have valuable skills – and that they can all bring something to the group.
Longslade students take part in a huge range of activities to boost their skills and confidence through their xl club – including creating recipe books to raise money for charity, organising and running puppet shows for local primary school pupils and DIY makeovers for which students draw up fully costed business plans and pitch ideas to staff.
While the two-year programme provides a nationally recognised Prince’s Trust qualification, it is not designed to replace GCSEs, but complements the national curriculum.
We have seen a number of schools bring the xl programme into the main school timetable for a select number of students when they come to choose their options for years 10 and 11.
By using the teaching time available for one GCSE subject and replacing it with the xl programme, the students are given the opportunity to develop the skills and coping mechanisms needed to succeed in the traditional classroom environment. In turn, this improves their attainment in the rest of their core GCSE subjects.
NCHS – The Science College in Newcastle is one school to have introduced the xl programme as an option alongside traditional GCSE and BTEC courses for young people who may be struggling.
Julie Clarke, xl club advisor at NCHS, explained: “The key thing for us was the flexibility and practicality of the programme that offers something different to typical classroom learning.
“However, at the same time a lot of the activities and skills involved in the programme strongly link back to work we are doing with the pupils for their GCSEs. “The pupils themselves can clearly recognise this and it really helps to demonstrate to them how their classroom learning translates into wider skills and life in the real world.”
On the scheme, teachers regularly make a break from the traditional classroom environment by physically taking the group out of the school and into the community – without it becoming a costly exercise.
One student on a Prince’s Trust scheme at Parkside Sports College in County Durham secured a work placement with a hairdressing salon in her local community as part of the programme. This was so successful that she was offered a regular Saturday job.
Other community activities have included a campaign to educate older people about doorstep crime, creating a book about local heroes in the community, and working with a local blacksmith to create a quiet garden in the school grounds.
The xl clubs are just one example of how interventions to support young people at risk of underachievement or exclusion can be both effective and sustainable. For some young people, they need time away from school to stabilise their home, family and personal life before they can re-engage in education.
These young people can be referred to their local Prince’s Trust Centre to participate on the Fairbridge programme, a programme delivered by Prince’s Trust staff based on challenging, adventurous and outdoor activities and intensive one-to-one support.
The Prince’s Trust is passionate about helping disadvantaged young people into jobs, training or education. With youth unemployment recently reaching record highs, it is now more important than ever to focus on long-term effective interventions to ensure that a generation is not left behind.
CAPTION: Students from Crown Woods College taking part in their XL Club, part of the Prince's Trust programme.
Lauren Hyams is the national head of Prince’s Trust xl programme.