Like prison regimes, school sanctions too often fail to rehabilitate those we need to support most

Why we need to act post lockdown to change our approach to schools’ ‘repeat offenders’

Assistant Head Teacher for Data and Assessment

I have often used the phrase “we are a product of our surroundings” when talking with young people.  In fact I can remember the very first time I used this as a young, very nervous middle leader delivering my first whole school assembly… the adrenalin!

Thinking back, was it the right thing to preach out loud? Perhaps I should have thought more about the individual circumstances in the room and how such a statement would land with an individual who feels stuck in a negative environment.

That said, I do stand by the sentiment. If we surround ourselves with positive people making positive decisions and taking positive actions, we ourselves are more likely to follow that path.

Putting students in a box

So flip it on its head, how much do the environmental factors contribute to the staggeringly high reoffending rate in prisons? If a person has been driven to make choices which ultimately lead them to break the law and then they are surrounded by others who have also been driven to make poor choices, have their liberty taken away and placed in a box, is there any surprise that the reoffending rate in the UK is so high?  How do these people feel during this time and do they feel immediately after?

Any yet in the education sector, we have somehow followed a similar route in our quest to deal with ‘poor choices’.  A young person who has made a series of poor choices, often driven by factors way out of our control, ends up in a school sanction system, which often surrounds them with other students who have made similarly poor choices, have their liberty taken away and placed in  … yes, a box.

I will always remember the time as a fresh-faced RQT, I placed Josh in detention only to find out later that he spent the previous night on the streets after being kicked out of his home.

So why do we do this? Is it just habit, something we’ve always done?  Is 2020 the same as 1990 and 1970?  Is it because we know that if we suppress our most vulnerable young people, eventually they will lose the will to fight back, or push back so hard that they trigger an exclusion?

Learning from the Clink

At Wapping High School, we are so proud of our inclusive philosophy, the positive choices made by our community and conversely our low rate of poor behavioral choices.  We pin that to our family feel and person-centred culture.  Having a stable staff with high retention has allowed the quality of teaching and learning to steadily improve and recent additions to our mentoring team allow us to focus on the most vulnerable.  And yet, as I am sure is the case elsewhere, some students still slip through the net and fall into a system of sanction.    

The Clink is a No1 Trip Advisor rated restaurant in London, run out of a Brixton prison.  Rather than punishment, this project concentrates on rehabilitation.  People enter a programme where they work with trained chefs, community leaders and farmers to cultivate, prepare and serve exceptional food to guests who visit the prison to dine in their restaurant.  People on the programme learn a variety of soft and hard skills building towards an NVQ qualification, a real experience which they can take with them as they reintegrate into society.  In providing this skillset and surrounding people with positivity and hope something quite astonishing happens, reoffending rates drop to just 17%.

So I ask, as educational leaders, what can we learn from this?

It seems that for those very few who may see the infamous Friday detention slot as a rite of passage, the old system of sanction prevalent in many educational institutions around the UK just does not work.  The pigeon-hole of ‘naughty’ simply spirals, as the seemingly unbreakable shackles of a life of sanctions tighten.

What if we took the lens of the Clink?  What tools does a de-motivated 13-year-old need to change their ways?  What are their individual circumstance? And what really led them down the path they are taking?

Remember Josh

It is when reflecting on the current situation we find ourselves in, as the lockdown eases and the clouds lift on what we are seeing to be a truly fractured society that I am beginning to realise just how wide and deep this net of young people may be.

One thing we do know is that we can’t expect our student community to return as they left us in March and that we must expect a long process of healing for all where a recovery curriculum that includes wellbeing is integral to a new-normal.  And what of the most vulnerable groups, our new disadvantaged: how will they re-integrate back into society when we fear that their environment, their surroundings have been far from stable?

I wonder what the new needs will be for this group?  What should we as leaders plan for, and how we can adapt our own systems to accelerate the inclusion of the most vulnerable?  It feels like it is time to redistribute our energy bravely into rehabilitation for these young people.  Through a greater focus on one-to-one coaching.  Through the creation of new links within our local community to re-build a feeling of belonging and trust. Through seeking opportunities to unleash new interests outside the confines of the curriculum which re-energise and re-motivate.  Through changing the surroundings that shape us all.

Maybe it is cultivating, preparing and serving exceptional food?  Maybe it is something completely different.  But it certainly can’t be business as usual.

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