This is what secondary drama teacher Julie Leoni and Bristol Learning Initiative director James Wetz said at a recent Antidote conference about the emotional factors that need addressing if we are to close the achievement gap.

‘Looking back, I don’t feel strongly or anything. If I’d had better parents, then I’d have been shown a better way. If I’d been to a different school, then it would have been different.

‘If my mum had been better, I would have had a better chance. If the school had been better, then they would have been able to teach and handle the kids better. You can’t just blame the school. There were a number of things wrong. Like I started to meet boys at a young age: so then that was part of it, reeling me away from school. Then my mum not telling me what to do, that started me reeling away from school. Then the teachers who made me not want to go to school – so it was a bit of lots of things.

‘But I am sad about all this in a way. I wish I never left school and that I would have got back in. But then you end up getting yourself into so much trouble, and then you just can’t.’

Reorganising secondary schools
James Wetz

My research involved people like Kirsten, the girl speaking above, who left her school in Bristol with no GCSE qualifications at all, even though she had achieved average or above average performance at primary school, in English, maths or science. Some 40% of those who left without any qualifications were in this category. When you scale this up nationally, you are talking about 30,000 youngsters leaving our schools without any qualification, of whom 10,000 will have achieved well in the primary school settings.

Unable to engage

When I stood down two years ago from being head of Cotham Community School in Bristol, I wanted to find a way of addressing my concern about the group of young people who are within our schools but who somehow cannot engage with learning, despite all the efforts that people make to help them.

Quite often, these youngster are called disaffected. My instinct was they were disaffected because they had lacked affection in the past, and in the present faced significant emotional, social, environmental demands. They were probably youngsters whose early attachment at infancy had been less than secure. And at secondary school level, they were acting out a remembered hurt.

My view was that these issues of affection impacted on their identities as learners. The lack of resilience that is generated by insecure early attachment makes secondary schools as we have designed them far too complex for these particular youngsters if they are to be successful.
In the course of the research, I asked young people to tell me of their experience of being educated at primary and secondary schools. As I listened to them, I went from feeling shocked to being extremely angry on their behalf. Their stories are an affront on young people’s right to have a good education in our school system.

Another way

In thinking about how things might be different, I became very interested in Boston’s small school movement. These are state-run schools which typically have no more than 300 students. No teacher teaches more than 70 children a week. No young person between the ages of 11 and 14 experiences more than four teachers a week.

The schools have also pioneered new approaches to authentic assessment, where students speak about their learning in front of their parents, carers and peers. They speak of what they have done and describe why it is important to them.

The staff group is small enough to hold the whole of the school in the minds and in their hearts. Attending one of their staff meetings, I said to the principal ‘How often do you meet?’

‘Every day,’ she said. ‘You have a staff meeting every day,’ I responded quizzically. ‘Yes, we do.’ ‘What do you do?’

‘There is only one question. I need to know which children in school have not been seriously engaged in learning today.’

That’s what happens. The children’s names come out. Somebody will say, ‘I will go and visit the home tonight. We need to know what is going on in that family.’ Somebody else says ‘we all need to meet and greet in a positive way tomorrow morning’. Then the more strategic resourcing to meet the needs of that child can made. It is not rocket science. It is about knowing that children with exceptional need needs exceptional input.


I think we need to recognise that the difficult behaviours young people confront us with are actually information for us as teachers about the needs of those children. If we are made to feel angry by the behaviour that children present to us, that tells us about the intensity of that child’s need.

I am not arguing that we should not sanction behaviour. However, we do need to understand what it means and put in place programmes to support the children who are acting out this remembered hurt in ways that we don’t always find socially acceptable.

I am particularly interested in whether we can start designing and organising our schools based on the principles that lie behind attachment theory (see page 8). In Bristol, we are doing further research on the way our understanding of attachment might inform the organisation and design of secondary schools.

We are working on a model of a learning and research community which uses young people’s voice and their experience as part of the design background for the community.

And we are researching the notion of urban village schooling. Instead of building a large academy in a deprived part of a city, why don’t we scale it down? We could have three or four urban village schools, connected with each other but operating at a scale that makes it possible to provide young people with the reliability and consistency that they need. I believe we will find that this is something all young people need.

Give students the time to work things out
Julie Leoni

‘It was me and Paul just having a laugh. I got told off and Paul didn’t; so I stopped but he kept on going and I said ‘fuck off I can’t be bothered with you’ to him. The teacher heard and said ‘Steve, stop swearing or you will get a detention’, and I went; ‘what about him?’. Then Paul said ‘dickhead’ and I said ‘shut up you knob’ and then I just got really annoyed and walked out. I went for a walk to find Mr A cos Mr A is a teacher I can talk to. I think if it weren’t for Mr A I wouldn’t be in this school, I do the detentions for him in his office and he keeps me out of trouble. I don’t like it but people know I’ve got a really short temper.’

Steve was among a group of young people I interviewed at the point of his return from exclusion. What he and others told me was that:

  • they either experienced a loss in the moment of the exclusion, or felt that they were going to lose something – it could be physical safety, emotional security or a sense of belonging
  • many of them had experienced a real loss in their past, whether from moving house, bereavement or illness in the family. The emotions associated with those were usually expressed as anger and fear.


Another theme that came up was around how masculinity affects the way in which boys express emotion. Masculinity was constructed around the idea of:

  • being in control
  • exerting power
  • having a fight
  • protecting something or somebody.

For these boys, to say that they felt scared or nervous was not part of an acceptable image of masculinity. And so they turned it into anger.
Some of the girls who were excluded regularly had developed similar behaviours – being hard, not showing that anything hurt – because they needed to be that way if they were to survive at home. However, part of the construction of femininity was that girls were allowed to talk to other girls. This opened up the possibility of finding other channels for their feelings.

Calm response

As I listened to young people telling me their stories, they were able to talk about how scared, frightened and sad they had been. What made it possible for them to do that was my being calm, non-judgemental and empathetic.

This made me realise how unhelpful to young people were some of the things that we did at school. We are a very hierarchical school. We also encourage competition. Students in PE were being told that the ones who got to the top of the ropes first were the hardest. That kind of language played into the images of masculinity that made it so difficult for these boys to find positive ways of dealing with their emotions.

Real teachers

I started the research because I had come from a school where the young people would fall silent when I walked into the room, to one where that just didn’t happened. As a result, I would find myself shouting, feeling stressed, thinking I had lost it.

As I explored what I could do differently, I realised that the young people made me feel scared. Instead of showing that to them, I became angry with them. So there was a parallel process going on. They dealt with their fear by getting angry. I did the same; so we just ended up shouting at each other.

But what these young people really wanted was:

  • for me and their other teachers to be real
  • to know a bit about us, whether we were feeling angry, grumpy or sad
  • to be listened to calmly, clearly and without judgement
  • to be cared for and to feel that we can be trusted to look after them.

They also wanted a model of how to do things differently. If they are being shouted at, they switch off. That is what they are used to. There is nothing that we teachers can do which they haven’t heard before. It is much more interesting to them when we model talking calmly.

Being reflective

All the young people I interviewed were able to be reflective about their own behaviour. Given time to work it out, they could give you a clear account of why they behaved as they did. Once that understanding had been shared, you could start talking with them about what would make it possible for them to behave differently. What I learned from that was that I have to:

  • pay attention to how I am feeling and how that is influencing the people around me
  • work on building positive relationships and solving conflict in a positive way.

That came back to me taking time to look after myself and being aware of what was going on for me. Only then could I be available to help students form the attachments that they needed if they were to learn and grow.

Books by leaders of the American small school movement

  • Horace’s Hope: Redesigning the American High School (Houghton Mifflin) by Ted Sizer.
  • The Power of their Ideas: Lessons for America by a Small School in Harlem (Beacon Press) by Debbie Meier.
  • Making the Grade: Reinventing America’s Schools (Routledge) by Tony Wagner.
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