In Norfolk, we wanted to develop an all-inclusive project to integrate marginalised young people into the mainstream by bring together communities of vulnerable students from Norfolk pupil referral units and special schools to work with peers from a mainstream school and personnel from the University of East Anglia. Our first step was a pilot event held in July, financed through a combination of support from the Norfolk SEAL funding from the National Strategies and a successful bid to CUE-East.

What we wanted to achieve
Our main objectives were to:

  • develop a deeper awareness of healthy sustainable lifestyles; enable the vulnerable young people to interact with adults and peers from ‘mainstream’ society
  • promote the idea that the university is a part of all young people’s community and that it is not an alien environment (even if they are unlikely to pursue higher education for themselves)
  • deliver the focus activities through SEAL methodology to foster self-awareness, management of feelings, social skills, empathy and motivation.

The day was designed to help raise aspiration among all the young people who participated and to help them to understand the opportunities available to them through the university; for instance, for joining activities offered through its sports park. In addition, we wanted to see some more focused changes in the target group of vulnerable young people. These included:

  • clear evidence of developing empathy and social skills
  • developing confidence and involvement
  • accepting and conquering the challenges that the day involved
  • demonstrating the implicit SEAL outcomes of the day – for example, managing their feelings of being stressed by being somewhere unfamiliar and (to most of them) very alien; showing social skills given their feelings; empathy for each other as they faced challenges in their own way; allowing themselves to be motivated to achieve things about which they feel hesitant or afraid.

Preparation was essential to ensure success. The programme only ran for four and a half hours on the pilot day, but it took several months of refining and discussion to ensure that the university-related agencies involved were sufficiently well briefed on the nature of the challenge. They needed to understand the difficulties faced by the youngsters from the two pupil referral units and the special school and to understand their behaviours, their lack of school-related skills and any disability they might have. School staff met with university staff to ensure that they had a chance to communicate any information or concerns that might need consideration, and so that they could become aware of what their young people would be dealing with in terms of physical geography and social environment in order to prepare them well for success.

What we did
The pilot was comprised of four separate structured activities. Firstly, the students considered ways to reduce society’s carbon footprint at the University’s Low Carbon Innovation Centre. Secondly, they attended a workshop about taste, genetic predisposition and its impact on physical and emotional states. It helped make science, as a subject, more real to many students. The students also took part in rock climbing and archery matched to their physical/intellectual ability in the sporting field with instructors engaged by UEA’s sports park.

The unstructured times of the day were as important as the more structured periods – providing a valuable learning opportunity for students as they had their lunch and saw university students during the day. It helped to give them more accurate perceptions of university life and the fact that people at university are more like themselves than perhaps they had thought before. Questions asked highlighted that PRU students, in particular, were grappling with what universities might really be like and ‘about’ in ways that hadn’t been thought of before.

Some of the young people had a rocky beginning to the day. They felt very out of their depth and expressed this either through aggressive or through quiet and withdrawn behaviour. Slowly, they came out of their shells and began to interact with peers and unfamiliar adults. They started to engage with each of the activities in a positive way. Individually, especially with archery and rock climbing, they overcame their initial reluctance to try and their fear of failing in front of others. Most of them exceeded their own expectations in terms of achievement. One young man who was induced to try rock climbing after really not wanting to do it was persuaded by a very attractive girl from the mainstream school who beguiled him! He climbed as high as the majority of students and was walking visibly taller than anyone else by the end of the day as a result.

What we learned
The success of the day was shown through attitudinal and behavioural change. When the young people faced up to the different challenges and overcame them with guidance from peers and experts at UEA, it visibly boosted confidence and instilled more of a ‘can do’ attitude.

One of the most telling and welcome comments came from the evaluation from a PRU lead staff member, who explained that students from the PRU are used to thinking of themselves as ‘losers’ who have been rejected by mainstream schools (albeit as a result of their own behaviour). The students felt that because the day had been organised especially for them, perhaps they were more valued by outsiders than they had thought.

We wanted to find out what types of activities would be effective with students from the PRU and special schools so that we would be able to offer something similar to their settings. They often feel left out of the activities available to mainstream schools. Our goal was validated – such activities were valuable to these students. However, we learned that these young people needed time and a lot of attention. We realised that success could be diluted if more similar young people became involved at the same time. Therefore, we will look to develop a two- or three-day model, based on this one-day model, to enable participants from the other PRUs and special schools to be involved.

The target group was fully engaged and the reaction of both staff and students from the schools was that they were really pleased to have been involved and would love to be involved in any repeat or development of the programme. The university staff members involved were pleasantly surprised by the comparative ease with which they could engage and sustain concentration of the students with their range of activities. The schools involved realised that the university is actively interested in engaging with them, even the PRUs, who rarely if ever have any real interaction with HE institutions as it is an unlikely destination for any of their ‘graduates’.

What advice would we give?
If you are considering running a similar project it is essential to focus on the need for long-term, detailed planning that involves both the university and the schools having an opportunity to meet and ‘size each other up’ well in advance of actually delivering the programme.

Securing a reliable funding stream is key. You might contact the other universities that have CUE programmes under the Beacon scheme – Manchester, Newcastle, London and Cardiff – who might able to offer the sort of assistance that CUE-East has been able to offer us.

Piloting the programme on a small scale was of great value. It gave all parties the confidence to extend the programme to involve more students over more days, but also made us realise some of the constraints in terms of student numbers.

The future
The sustainability of the project will always centre on being able to fund it adequately, either from external funding or by the institutions involved. CUE-East and the Norfolk SEAL programme co-funded this pilot. Obviously, there is a limit to the ability of CUE-East or any single funding stream to provide further or repeat funding indefinitely. The severe financial constraints under which all parts of the public sector will be operating over the next few years necessarily imperil the future. However, it will certainly be possible to run the project within Norfolk for the next academic year. By engaging more institutions it should also be possible to persuade at least some of them of its value and perhaps to encourage funding from new sources.

Evaluation from the mainstream school
‘At the beginning of the day, I asked B his name. His response was ‘Why do you want to know’. As we were waiting for the plenary… he pretended to run away. I followed and we both leant over the balcony and I asked him about the PRU. We had a quiet and sad conversation, he told me he had been an idiot to have been excluded from his school, and realised how much he has missed out on. He made eye contact and was prepared to show his vulnerable side.’

‘On the coach on the way back, I was talking to some of the Year 10 girls. They wanted to know how the students got to be placed in the PRU. Georgia, the girl who worked most with the PRU students, commented that she thought it was very sad. She didn’t think they wanted to behave in the way that they did, and she hoped they would get a lot of help. The others agreed.’

Evaluation from the PRU‘Without exception they [the young people] thought it was a fantastic day. There were so many factors that made it good:

  • The environment itself gave the students energy and they were excited to be in a new place…
  • They were challenged to do things that they thought they couldn’t.
  • They interacted with students from other schools and this made them feel very good about themselves.
  • They felt valued as a result of all the effort that went into organising the day.
  • They all felt that it was one of the best things they have done in their school lives.

Joe said he liked rock climbing: he found this most entertaining. Sean said he enjoyed archery – ‘the buzz you get from trying to aim the arrow into the centre of the target.‘

Dugald Ferguson
is an adviser on secondary strategy and improvement (behaviour and attendance) for Norfolk LA