Sue O’Brien is a strategic lead for the South Yorkshire Futures Social Mobility Programme at Sheffield Hallam University and is a member of the Sheffield Institute of Education’s Leadership team. Sue is also the Programme Director and Course Tutor for the GROW Mentoring project.
On the 19th June The Government announced plans to spend £1 billion on tutoring and coaching to help vulnerable pupils catch up at school as they return after lockdown. This is a very welcome initiative but as with all initiatives the devil will be in the detail. If we take the approach that subject tutoring alone is the answer then we do our young people and our schools a disservice.
In our region and across the country, schools work hard to engage and inspire their pupils day in and day out. Schools have continued to work relentlessly to support their children and young people through this most challenging of times. They have continued to recognise and deliver the support that their pupils need that goes far beyond curriculum boundaries.
But they need more help, we know that doing nothing extra will mean that the Coronavirus pandemic will leave thousands in real danger of believing the narrative that’s surrounding them: that they will become tomorrow’s social problems: tomorrow’s education drop-outs, tomorrow’s drug users and tomorrow’s potential crime wave. And we know that doing nothing could make this a reality.
Our teachers and school leaders are brilliant and resilient, and will support them through this with wider support from the education sector. They – and we – know that our young people have the power to change the world and build a bright future from this period in our history. We don’t believe that this will be a tale of a doomed future for a lost generation – unless we allow that to happen.
In South Yorkshire we’re great at creative solutions to problems, we have strong partnerships with our schools with whom we are working to provide this support : we also have a generation of local graduates who are finishing their degrees this Summer and who aren’t sure what the jobs market holds for them right now. So Sheffield Hallam University is working with the Northern Powerhouse Partnership to train and mobilise those graduates and to connect them with schools so that they can help ensure next year’s GCSE cohort reconnect and thrive in school.
In September, we aim to deploy Hallam graduates from the class of 2020 across schools in the Sheffield City Region, which includes Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham. Each graduate will mentor a small number of pupils for a fixed period, forming a network of support at this critical time in their lives.
At Sheffield Hallam we’re already experts in supporting pupil wellbeing: we work with a charity called Trauma Informed Schools UK which aims to put good mental health at the heart of school life, and our initial teacher education includes a compulsory element on its approach.
We should be in no doubt that pupils will be returning to school affected in a variety of ways as a result of the lockdown. That will impact how they manage their behaviour, it will impact their relationships and their self-esteem, and it may well leave many defensive, angry and unable to learn. If we do nothing.
Our approach is backed by solid research evidence: for instance from Public Health England, which highlighted in a briefing for head teachers just how strongly a child’s level of wellbeing is linked to academic success, good behaviour and motivation.
A literature review by the Education Endowment Foundation concluded that measurable factors such as self-control and school engagement were correlated not just with attainment but also with improved finances later in life, and reduced crime. The Department for Education recognises this – in fact self-regulation has become something of a buzz-phrase and has been written into the early years curriculum along with Social and Emotional Learning.
The research shows that these approaches can give pupils between four and seven months’ additional progress on attainment – but only if they’re embedded and used in a sustainable way. We also know those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, who are less likely to have the support of positive role models at home, are more likely to lack confidence and to doubt that they will succeed: so they need this help more than most.
During lockdown we have all experienced to varying degrees a loss of direction, loss of connection and loss of control – we all need to find that again, to know how to reconnect and see what’s positive about the future. For many vulnerable young people school was their safe place, their escape, their structure. Young people who already felt they were being left behind are now hearing that it’s too late for them to catch up and that their future employment chances are bleak.
Our programme will match those young people with graduates from their own areas – graduates who understand what they’re going through and who are young enough themselves to remember and connect with all those feelings.
These graduate mentors will undergo comprehensive training, possibly with accreditation, to ensure they have the skills to motivate, engage and build positive relationships with pupils. They will need to show qualities and skills that go far beyond subject knowledge.
Their role will be to help pupils to see the purpose of education, and to support them in planning their future journeys.
Our graduates will benefit too: at a time of economic turmoil and with high levels of unemployment, they will gain work experience and life-skills along with an impressive addition to their CVs which should help them in their chosen careers: who knows, some of them may even decide to work in education.
We believe our programme is scalable, and that ministers should take note. We need an approach that recognises the potential achievement and aspirations of a generation that could so easily become lost. We see them as the solution, our plan is to support them to make good choices to realise their potential.