Through the Pivotal Blog, we are publishing in full “Views from the Bridge” a book about the Bridge Project in Chesterfield.
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Not Always Successful
I am aware that in this account of the first two years of the Bridge Project it will seem that everything in the garden was rosy: all the youngsters thrived and all successfully reintegrated into their schools. Of course this was not always the case. In this chapter we will look back at the course of events surrounding a number of Bridge pupils whose experience might be deemed to have been less successful, to see what lessons can be learned from what happened to them.
Michael started his career at the Bridge well and was thought of as a good referral and even now a referral would still be thought appropriate. It wasn’t that he shouldn’t have come to the Bridge but there were factors in his life which meant he and his family were not able to take advantage in the way some others did. Critically, Bridge staff might have managed his case differently and to better effect.
There were certainly issues within his family to indicate the level of his nurturing had at times been low. Although his mother would “come in to bat” for him, verbally attacking the professionals involved with her family, there were times when disruptions to the family were so intense that Michael’s needs were low on the priority list. So low that he was taken into LA care for a time.
He was quite bright in a street-wise kind of way and was able to express himself well. He was very enthusiastic in the Bridge at first, engaging positively with staff and with all the activities. However, his enthusiasm waned after some time and he became awkward, truculent and increasingly reluctant to engage.
His background was not dissimilar in many ways to other young people who attended the Bridge, but where the majority reintegrated reasonably successfully to mainstream his return became problematic. No doubt part of the reason for that is that we are all different, have different tolerances, different emotions and react in different ways to what life throws at us. There are children who have endured very difficult circumstances all through their childhood and who continue to attend mainstream school, tell no-one and simply cope. Other youngsters at the Bridge ostensibly had worse conditions in their childhoods than Michael but made more of the opportunities. Michael responded in his way, which was to become cynical and estrange himself from the Bridge staff and from the processes.
A key factor in Michael’s case was the relationship between the Bridge staff and his mother. I have written elsewhere that many parents have had so many negative meetings and dealings with schools and helping agencies that they are often reluctant to commit yet again. This was the case with Michael’s mother; she often called off from meetings at his school. The first step in the induction process for Bridge is for the Lead Teacher to meet with parents and the young person to begin what it is hoped – and usually is – a productive relationship. Michael’s mother also called off from that initial meeting and became angry when her son was not simply admitted immediately without her committing. That started the relationship off on the wrong foot and although things did improve it never really fully recovered. Also, she had plans to move to another town and openly shared this intention with Michael, meaning the commitment of both was diminished.
Whether this parental non-attendance at meetings influenced the second factor in Michael’s case or not I don’t know, but there was no Common Assessment Form (CAF) in place for him, a requirement for all admissions to the Bridge. The impact of this became clear later. Where there were regular multi-agency meetings for those pupils who did have a CAF, such meetings did not take place nearly so often for Michael, making planning for his future much more difficult. As reintegration approached he became increasingly difficult and was very reluctant to commit to returning to school.
He did move away and enrolled at a different school. There was an urgent phone call from them asking for an explanation about the background and history of this lad who had simply turned up on their doorstep. His departure from the Bridge was at the end of the summer term and his subsequent enrolment at the new school took place at the beginning of the new term. He started to cause some trouble in the new school at first but – last heard – did manage to last for the year.
- The requirement for a completed CAF was soundly based – we should have stuck to our own procedure and insisted on having one completed so that planning meetings were built into the reintegration process meaning all associated professionals would have participated.
- A good working relationship with the pupils’ families had served the team and pupils very well. More effort should have been made to get the relationship with Michael’s family off on a better footing or to get it quickly on track.
Like Michael, the referral for John seemed appropriate and he joined at quite an early stage along with a group of quite differing characters, but whose needs the Bridge seemed able to meet relatively easily.
Also like Michael, his early days at the Bridge were very positive – he was possibly one the brightest of those who have attended – but in time relations, his behaviour and attitude deteriorated. He would make animal noises rather than speak and at times caused alarm by hanging out of windows.
In common with several of the early attenders at the Bridge, John had been adopted and was aware of that but had not done much investigation into his early life. Unfortunately, his parents split up and his father eventually moved quite far away with a new partner. To make matters more difficult for all concerned, his mother was quite ill and John reacted in destructive ways.
It was mooted that he should go into the care of the local authority but instead was cared for by other family members. Eventually he moved to join his father and stayed with him for some time.
In time, he returned to the area and to his mother and went back to his old school and although he doesn’t attend very frequently, being on special alternative “packages” he does have continuing contact.
So what could have been done better?
- It is probably obvious, but those young people whose families are still in the throes of disruptions and challenges find it very difficult to trust the new relationships on offer at the Bridge. When nascent trust first shows they often need to test the apparently caring new adults in their lives. It sometimes happens that they test the new relationships to destruction as if to see what might happen next, perhaps to confirm their world-view that adults cannot be trusted. We should have been prepared for that and been prepared to prevent John’s actions from jeopardising the progress being made.
We need to recognise that youngsters facing the deep-seated and continuing difficulties of the sort John faced need a longer period of compensatory nurture time than the twelve to sixteen weeks offered by the Bridge Project. It could easily take years to redress their hurt and loss.
- Having someone to support John and his family throughout this very difficult period might have helped. That someone might have been a dedicated Family Resource Worker (FRW) or similar professional who whilst not able to prevent family separation – even if that was thought desirable – could have helped John and his parents chart their way through the difficulties with less damage to John – our primary focus.
Bridge staff worked hard to secure this sort of help from others but they in turn were often hard-pressed so the support he had wasn’t enough. This issue is being addressed in Phase 2 of the project with each young person being linked with a dedicated FRW from the local Multi-Agency Team (MAT)
Steve was referred to the Bridge in his first term of Year 7, a referral which provoked the response of “too soon”. At that time it was felt by the admissions group to be too early to judge how the strategies being employed by his school would impact on his behaviour. The Bridge Assessment Group made suggestions about further strategies to use and suggested agencies which the school might turn to for help and the school did invoke their support, but by Christmas he had been permanently excluded.
He then attended the local Pupil Referral Unit whose leader was also a member of the Area Inclusion Strategy (AIS) group and had followed closely the development of the Bridge Project. Finding Steve unresponsive to their set-up and methods, she asked the Bridge to re-consider a place for him. After a lot of discussion the request was acceded to.
There hasn’t been a young person who has attended the Bridge project whose home circumstances have not been challenging for them and this was so for Steve. His single parent mother seemed unable to provide much material care for him and there was often conflict between his siblings. Quite often he lived with an uncle – a bit like two blokes sharing accommodation – not necessarily the best way to nurture a troubled thirteen year old.
Steve joined the Bridge at a time when there was already a testing combination of difficult young people present. It wasn’t that he was a leader; his style was to try to antagonise the others – to wind them up. Although he was quite bright, getting him to do any written work was a huge struggle. He constantly pushed to the limits not only with staff but with the other youngsters. One day whilst they were all having a picnic outside he grabbed all the sandwiches and threw them away. On another occasion I observed him turning over items of furniture. This wasn’t done in temper but quietly, almost methodically, ignoring requests from pupils and staff to stop. He then tried to get the attention of a lad who was working with a member of staff by throwing paper balls at him. This made the other lad quite angry but Steve just kept it up for so long that staff had to intervene and get him to leave the room. Outside he started to damage a vending machine. As the Bridge is located in a public building with others users, it seemed the only way of stopping him was to send him home.
The negative effect on the other young people was increasing to the extent that Bridge staff felt they had no option but to ask for him to go back to the P.R.U. – the only pupil to date who has not completed the full period in the Bridge.
- As a member of the group who agreed his admission I own up to hubris or overconfidence. The Bridge was going well and I had become a firm advocate of nurture principles and saw them as the solution to many of the problems being faced by youngsters who were struggling in mainstream. I have always been disappointed with “the system” which continues to squash such youngsters in to the “one size fits all” mould that is secondary schooling. Here was a chance to show what could be done with a lad whose primary and secondary schools had failed to meet his needs, as had the P.R.U.
I/we should have realised that a boy who had caused so many problems – particularly so early at secondary school – needed more than the usual support. In addition, he joined a group which was more challenging in combination than some at the Bridge – Michael (above) was one such in this group. We might have waited for a combination of young people who were a bit easier to manage.
- He did not have a school to be reintegrated into, meaning the work was less focused and he may have felt a negative comparison with the others who were working to return to their “home base”.
Only two of the young people who have attended the Bridge Project in the first two years have been excluded from their school after their reintegration. Both were from the same school but excluded at different times. The school is in a poor area and does excellent work in the field of inclusion. One provision they have to help meet the needs of challenging pupils is a KS3 behaviour unit. Here it is recognised that there are pupils who bring with them to school so many issues they cannot manage a full day/week in the full curriculum experience. The KS3 unit gives them an alternative to the full diet the rest of the pupils follow. The two boys in question returned to that KS3 unit where they met up again with some of the school’s disruptive pupils. Despite the progress they had made in the Bridge, these boys returned to their challenging ways and were excluded for defying all school authority in quite extreme ways, e.g. verbally abusing the head teacher.
One of these boys appeared in the chapter “containment” where he was labelled “Sweary Boy”. Does this mean the Bridge failed him and that the containment approach failed to deal effectively with his swearing? “Yes” is a very valid answer to that question. However, I think he falls under the category of spending too little time in the nurture environment for a lasting change to be effected and his reintegration was flawed.
Summary of lessons learned from these cases
- Stick to your own procedures (CAF)
- When you know an important part of the work is not going well, stop and get it back on track (e.g. relationships with parents).
- Evaluate not only the appropriateness of a referral but how likely a young person is to succeed within the group already present.
- Recognise that a relatively short-term nurture placement is not likely to be a panacea for all ills. Be prepared to extend the period of attendance.