Trust and relationships: Making alternative provision work

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska | Published:
No fear: Wize Up principal Lorretta Boyd (image supplied)

Building strong relationships and empowering students are two core principles at the heart of Wize Up, an alternative provision operating in south London. Dorothy Lepkowska finds out more

“Some of our young people have been through stages in their lives where doors have been closed to them and relationships have failed.”

No-one knows better than Lorretta Boyd what life can be like for some of the pupils at Wize Up.

As a girl growing up in the 1960s, her school life was affected by undiagnosed dyslexia and her family life disrupted by an alcoholic father.

Her challenging childhood was one of the reasons Ms Boyd decided to open Wize Up. She wanted to create a sanctuary and a beacon of hope, to advocate for young people for whom life’s challenges make attending mainstream school all but impossible.

“I don’t want our children to be scared of anything,” she told SecEd. “They need to be listened to and to have a voice, but they also need to have the skills so they can achieve their dreams.”

After working as a youth worker and a youth programme coordinator, Ms Boyd was moved to open Wize Up in 2008.

Identifying need

Based in south London, Wize Up is an alternative education provision catering for young people aged 11 to 16. It is independent of local authority control, although local authorities often refer pupils.

Most of the pupils have emotional and behavioural problems and learning difficulties that have not been properly addressed in mainstream. Some have suffered from sexual abuse and violence or have been criminally exploited. Many suffer from mental health problems.

Ms Boyd said: “Emotions can be very up and down, depending on the children’s home lives, and there is a tendency for them to bring their emotions and problems into school.

“Some of our young people have been through stages in their lives where doors have been closed to them and relationships have failed. They find it difficult to open-up to people – especially professionals – fearing further judgement because of what is going on at home or in the community. It can take them a long time to settle and they might not be able to access the services they need immediately.”

This might be down to a lack of trust on the part of the child or past trauma or indeed the length of time it can often take for the services themselves to allocate resources.

Ms Boyd added: “We overcome this by building relationships, listening, offering an approachable ear, while having a firm focus on supporting the safeguarding of them and their environments.”

Ms Boyd meets with each child when they arrive so that she can “listen to their concerns and the issues they are facing” while also getting to know them and their personality.

She continued: “We have to build trust and relationships. As much as we want them to access the curriculum effectively and to aspire, they also have emotional needs and need to open-up and allow someone in to help them to understand their problems.

“Our strategy is to sit down and talk to them to understand what they need, what they are thinking, what is going on in their lives and to find out what they want and can achieve in life.”

Wize Up is rated “good” by Ofsted. Its recent 2020 inspection report praised “effective safeguarding practice” and a “broad curriculum”. It states: “Leaders are ambitious for all pupils. They ensure that pupils have the right support and a personal approach to help them succeed. Everyone has a focus on ‘breaking down barriers’ and helping pupils to have a fresh start.

“(Pupils) are well supported in preparing for life after school. During their time at the school, pupils make strong gains in both their studies and personal development.”

Offering stability

Wize Up aims to offer students stability. A number of the students are looked after and have had several placements. Ms Boyd said: “They have to have hope. They need to feel valued, that they are loved, and that someone is looking out for them.”

School counsellor Ms Ryan is one of the first adults the young people meet when they arrive. She told SecEd: “Not everyone immediately agrees to talk to me and it can take a while to build that trust, but it’s useful to look through the cracks early and find out what is going on underneath so I can flag up anything that teachers need to know.

“It allows us, as a team, to consider what strategies we might need to support the child. Some of the children have previously been bullied out of school or do not fit into their family environment. Some might have truanted in the past or become involved in crime.

“We need to understand these children before we put them into the classroom so that we don’t risk repeating patterns of behaviour.”

New students also meet with the curriculum pastoral lead and have other one-to-one support as required, including mentoring and therapy.

A key goal is to reassure the young person that they have a voice and are able to express their thoughts and feelings without prejudice. Ms Boyd said this “open-door” policy is key, giving the young people “the ability to articulate”.

Leadership: 'I do not want them to fear anything that life throws at them but to go out into the world believing they can succeed at whatever they want to be'

The school structure

The day at Wize Up resembles that of many other schools, with a timetable of lessons. However, it is often punctuated with family liaison meetings or one-to-one discussions with students about problems or how they are feeling.

Staff meet regularly to discuss each student, analyse their progress and share information and strategies on how to get the best from them academically, while also penetrating the barriers they may face. Ms Ryan is among those who contribute to these sessions.

Classes are supported by a teacher and at least one, typically two, teaching assistants (one focuses on learning, the other on positive behaviour). Each student has their own individual learning plan showing the level they are working at and which aspects need improvement. Good work, behaviour and attendance are celebrated in assembles with certificates and vouchers.

Much of Wize Up’s success has come from its GCSE offer. Unlike some alternative settings, students study mathematics, English, biology, citizenship, RE and PSHE.

The success of the school is reflected, not least, in the high take-up of further education places and apprenticeships. Most recently, 98 per cent of students left with confirmed post-16 placements. One student with mental health challenges recently went on to achieve A levels at A* in Spanish and English literature. They are now studying at university.

Ms Thomas, the school’s operations manager, told SecEd: “We have to be realistic about what our students can achieve given the context in which they have come to us. We encourage them to do their best and most leave to go to college or an apprenticeship, so they are continuing with education and training. As a result, we have very few students who end up NEET.”

The school is an examination centre in its own right and also supports an alternative provision in nearby Lewisham so that students there can come and sit their GCSEs.

Attendance, Ms Thomas added, continues to be an area of development in in terms of national averages, but Wize Up’s students are far more likely to attend school now than in their previous settings.

External support

While most of the pupils are males, a new facility on a separate site will open this term specifically for vulnerable female students, such as those who are pregnant or at risk of abuse or exploitation. The new facility, for 30 females, will increase the total school roll to 70.

The risks of sexual abuse and exploitation have also led the school to seek the assistance of outside organisations. Staff and pupils are supported by the charity Be Her Lead, which works to empower girls, develop resilience and raise aspiration. Staff receive training on strategies they can use with young females to help them through difficult teenage years.

Wize Up also works with social mobility charity, St Giles Trust, which aims to empower young people who are caught in the spiral of poverty and disadvantage.

Elsewhere, the charity Growing Against Violence works with the school to help educate students about the dangers of gang culture.

And the school is currently working with Nurture UK to become a Nurture School, which involves having a firm focus on trauma and mental wellbeing informed teaching practices and training.

Empowerment is a key goal and is also developed via the student council, where pupils express views and shape the day-to-day life of the school. Ms Boyd added: “Giving them a voice now will give them the confidence to articulate later in life.”

Family support

The school works closely with parents and carers, which can sometimes bring its own challenges. Ms Boyd explained: “We meet parents often and call them in not just to discuss problems, but also to celebrate their children’s progress and achievements. Sometimes we do have to challenge them because we work in the interests of the children and this can be difficult.

“We have to try to be honest and straight but fair and gentle because there is no manual on good parenting and people can get things wrong.”

But this relationship with parents and care-givers is just as important as that with the students. It often includes out-of-hours home visits and the offer of therapy sessions for families. A family liaison worker works closely with families to overcome barriers to attendance and to support them in accessing funding and parenting help.

A big difference

Ms Boyd recalls her own time as a student in alternative provision, where she struggled to learn to read and write. She remembers with affection two adults who believed in her and gave her the confidence to succeed – something she wants her staff to emulate now.

One was a former manager, called Nigel, who offered her her first job. The other was a teacher called Alison, who taught art and who “knew what was going on” with her difficult family life.

Ms Boyd explained: “She would sit with me and teach me the alphabet and would look out for me, and that’s what I want for my students.”

And it is clear that Wize Up is now making a big difference to the young people who go there.

“We still get visits from former pupils who come in to say hello, and sometimes to ask advice for their problems. Our door is always open,” Ms Boyd added. “I do not want them to fear anything that life throws at them but to go out into the world believing they can succeed at whatever they want to be.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education writer.

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