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The Bridge Project – Chapter 1

Through the Pivotal Blog, we are publishing in full “Views from the Bridge” a book about the Bridge Project in Chesterfield.

We are publishing this book in chapters. Every week a new chapter will be uploaded to the blog. So make sure you bookmark this page or subscribe to the RSS feed.

If you have questions for the authors, please contact us and we will pass them on.

Last week we published the Project Headlines and Foreword so do read this first if you missed it.

 

Chapter 1

How come they look so normal?

Pupil A, a girl in Year 8, is very neatly dressed in full school uniform. She has a bright and keen face but her expressions are under close control so as not to give away too much, but no more so than many teenagers. She follows every instruction, answers politely and listens to the other students with respect. Pupil A, though not voluble, is quite prepared to speak in group discussion and responds appropriately to the others, occasionally laughing at an amusing story told by another pupil.

Pupil B is out of the control of her teachers. She regularly truants from classes, but remains on the school site and seems to enjoy being chased by staff around the campus. When confronted she responds with violent swearing and defiance. At home she steals and quite often runs away. Her school have arranged for her to attend an alternative, out of school provision for one day each week, but her behaviour is so “deleterious to good order” that she is not allowed to attend the main school site.

Pupil C is a good looking, smartly-dressed lad who, though tall he is only in Year 9. He has a ready smile and appears confident in talking to any adults. If you met him at the golf club or any such social venue you would take him for a well-socialised young person, much older than his fourteen years. He might join you in a conversation about the car you drive, letting you know quite subtly and politely that he doesn’t rate your Nissan X-Trail very highly: “A bit box like.”

When Pupil D comes into the classroom the teacher very quickly recognises him as a “Jack the lad”. He is attention-seeking from the outset and any attempts by the teacher to calm him down and get him onto the subject of the lesson run into the sand. He seems to need the approval of his peers; and this motivates him so much that any disapproval from the teacher doesn’t curb his exuberance. He usually fails to recognise when things are going too far and when he is offended by a comment or joke he can react quite aggressively.

Pupil E is also a big guy and quite a lot of his anecdotes are food-related. He is a confident talker and has a ready fund of stories, laughs a lot, quite often at himself. Whilst he likes to hold the floor he does also listen to others with some empathy and understanding. He relates well to adults, being able to switch from jokes and laughter to listening to and taking advice. Pupil E relates particularly well to one female Teaching Assistant and likes helping to organise.

Pupil F is the eldest child and only boy in a family where he has witnessed domestic violence. In school he is silly to the point of being disruptive. Everything is a joke, but when one backfired he violently grabbed a classmate. At such times it takes two adults to sit by his side to contain him.

Have you guessed?
Pupils A and B are about the same girl.
Pupil C and D describe the same boy and
E and F are both a description of a third boy.

The second paragraph on each (B,D and F) is the picture painted by their schools when they referred them to the Bridge Project. Having heard those descriptions I had built a mental picture of the sort of young person I would meet. That view was wide of the mark as when I did meet them I found them as described in A, C and E.

The title of this article is drawn from my first meeting them face to face in the Bridge Project, a nurture based provision for young people with “attachment issues”. All have lacked nurture at some point in their lives yet these youngsters appeared well adjusted.

So how do we account for the difference between how their schools described them and the young people I met?

First of all, I believe the school’s description of the young people’s behaviour was accurate. I don’t remember ever thinking a school’s description of a pupil in such a forum was exaggerated or malevolent. Of course you may hear some exasperated teacher sounding off in the staffroom about the impossibility of teaching certain pupils and bemoaning the “social worker” role s/he feels society now expects of teachers. But when it comes to an inclusion teacher presenting the problems faced by the school and the pupil at a meeting of peers I have found a great sense of fairness and balance in the reporting.

My contrasting impressions were not formed on the first day or week of the youngster’s experience in the Bridge Project and can’t be accounted for by a new pupil trying to impress. I met each one after two or three weeks’ attendance, ample time for the pupils to have tested out staff and to have shown their “true colours”.

 

Why do we see this positive picture?

The Bridge Project represents a fresh start and most youngsters do take advantage of that and usually respond to the tone and approach of the new place. The Lead Teacher meets with each young person and their parent in his or her own home and together they articulate the ambition that there will be a successful return to mainstream school. The teacher tells the family and youngster how he and the other staff will work hard to support that outcome saying, “This is how we will work together” and emphasises that the young person, their family and Bridge staff will work as a team. Everyone will be expected to play a full part in the reintegration.

In the Bridge Project each young person is very much an individual and one who is well known to all the staff. A profile (see section on the Boxall Profile in Chapter 8: Assessment) of the pupils will have been completed before entry to the project and all staff will be fully aware of it and the individual pupil targets derived from it. Regular “solution circles” are held where staff review pupil progress adapting targets and methods to build on progress made or to address new circumstances.

A key approach is to help the youngster make small steps towards his/her targets and to restate and repeat them regularly and often. The work is constructed in ways which enable pupils to experience success. Behind any front they may put up, young people who have reached the stage of being referred out of their school think of themselves as failures. They lack belief that they can succeed, so when a target is achieved and praise follows they are apt to disregard it or disbelieve that they have made progress. It takes many repetitions of success for them to really believe in themselves as learners.

Sharing good news around the breakfast table and reviewing progress later in the day helps each one feel listened to and valued. When each youngster is asked to recount their good news the message goes to them that they matter and are important enough to be asked and to be listened to. They are encouraged to make eye contact and to listen to their peers, both key social skills.

Sharing the targets with the young people, discussing successes and lapses, helps give them the language to recognise and articulate their feelings, helping them to reflect and to move beyond pure reaction. The close supervision enabled by the favourable staff/pupil ratio means any potential problems can be anticipated and prevented before becoming too difficult to manage – both for pupil and for staff. The routines of each day and week are well-established and firmly adhered to so as to minimise the change and unpredictability that such youngsters find difficult.

I asked above what might account for the differences between the school referral and the young people I met in the Bridge.

In school, such youngsters earn fame for being “bad”. Bridge staff create opportunities to catch them being “good”.

The curriculum, the hidden curriculum and the complex structures of a mainstream school mitigate against their success. Let me give an account of an approach by one teacher which may serve as an example of why their schools described them in the ways they did at the time of referral.

 

Welcome to Year 7

It is the first day in “big school” for new Year seven pupils and this is to be their first Science lesson. They have heard from older siblings and friends that Science is often fun and involves exciting equipment and materials.

The class arrives in an excited state at the lab door to be met by “Sir” who very firmly tells them to line up properly and emphasises that he will expect them to do this at every lesson. The excitement bubbles up as they go in so Sir makes them go back out and come in again, “Properly, this time.”

Sir seems to have a view of who ought to sit where and seems to single out certain pupils for attention, sometimes mentioning that he knows members of their family.

The lesson then begins and after strict instructions about how and where to write their name and class on their exercise books the whole lesson involves pupils writing out Sir’s “Rules of the Lab”. These almost entirely consist of “Do nots”. The lesson ends with the traditional “Stand behind your chair until I tell you to move. Put your chairs under the table, QUIETLY.”

How will a young person feel at the end of this introductory lesson? What messages – overt and hidden – will they take away?

One is that Science is boring. Another is that Sir is fussy and strict.

The message seems to come through that the do’s and don’ts are for the benefit and convenience of the teacher; that pupils are a potential nuisance and can’t be trusted to behave appropriately or to know what to do. It is transmitted that pupils must be clamped down upon or they will foment anarchy. Will they feel trusted, enthused and ready to participate fully in their science education? I think not.

My description is not an exaggeration as I have seen this lesson in several guises. I might have written it up as, “Rules of the Workshop or Rules of the Gym or Rules of my Food Technology Room.”

How prevalent are the attitudes shown by my Science teacher? Not uncommon in my view.

The challenge for an inclusive school is to enshrine a philosophy and approach to staff and young people which would mean that such lessons and the attitudes that lie behind them wither on the vine. I do not believe such teachers can ever be “outstanding” nor can a school reach that level when such teachers are seen as successful practitioners.

However, even with an inclusive and encouraging philosophy there will be in most schools young people who have not had the early nurturing that lets them thrive in the large, open and, at times, inconsistent organisation that is a comprehensive school. How many children go through life without some form of serious family breakdown, illness or bereavement? Not all who do experience these will be so adversely affected that they cannot cope in mainstream, but a proportion in every school will.

The three pupils described above certainly were so affected. Indeed, of all the pupils who have been through the Bridge Project, only three lived with their own birth mother and father. The majority were living in a single parent family, usually with a step parent. This need not be a problem in itself, but for quite a few the marital split had involved violence and had had a negative impact on the child. Quite a few of the others were adopted, looked after by other family members or in Local Authority care. (see Chapter 6: Working with Parents)

How would the three pupils described above react to this Science lesson, with this teacher? Would they believe that here is an adult who would get to know me and look after my needs? Perhaps we can see how they might have reacted in the ways their schools described in the referral to the Bridge Project.

Our experience in the Bridge Project is that the nurture approach works very well for most of the young people we have had with us and the Chesterfield and NE Derbyshire Schools who manage the Bridge Project have seen the benefit of this collaborative approach.

For these pupils, comparing the twelve weeks before and after the Bridge experience, attendance improved and the rate of exclusions fell. Only two boys out of over twenty Bridge pupils have since been excluded from their school, the rest have been successfully reintegrated into their schools.

The following chapters describe the methods by which these results were obtained and we also say when and how we might have done better.

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