Meg Thomas, Head of Research, Policy and Participation at includem, reflects on the positive impact whole family support can have on children and young people’s education, the urgent need to tackle child poverty, and the importance of amplifying young people’s voices.
In Martyn McLaughlin’s Scotsman article on education reform, current Secondary School teacher and former Policy and Communications Manager at includem, Michael Shanks, reflected on the importance of supporting young people’s lives beyond the immediate school environment – and the crucial role this plays in improving attainment.
‘All of the discussion about Education Scotland the SQA is important, but none of it touches on the public policy issues about poverty, wellbeing at home, and family support […] Our response to tackling the attainment gap shouldn’t just be focused on schools, it’s about supporting young people in their lives outside school.’
Families supported by includem live disproportionately in Scotland’s most deprived communities and are impacted sharply by poverty – the effects of which have heightened during the course of the pandemic. When families are struggling to put food on the table, live in overcrowded housing, or are digitally excluded, children and young people face significant barriers to learning compared to their peers – impacting both engagement and attainment. Even pre-pandemic, our upcoming schools research shows the young people we support faced barriers to engagement in formal education, with 41% having a negative view of ..
The poverty-related attainment gap will not be solved by in-school solutions alone because the gap is not created in school, it is created when families in poverty face structural barriers which limit their opportunities and resources. It is essential that government efforts to tackle child poverty are urgently expanded and accelerated, as far too many young people and families are still being left behind.
McLaughlin’s piece highlights a project includem undertook in Dundee schools which helped children and young people who were at risk of exclusion. Feedback from this work emphasised the value of the additional resource provided through includem’s flexible and out of hours service. This service increased schools’ capacity to support pupils and their families through successfully ‘bridging the gap’ between home and school.
This project, and our work with schools across Scotland, demonstrates the impact that support beyond the school gates can have, in turn, within them. Providing holistic support to the whole family – with a focus on forming authentic, trusting relationships, and building on family strengths – empowers young people to engage more effectively with their education.
A Depute Head in West Dunbartonshire told us:
‘I genuinely feel that the combination of support that you are able to offer to both the young person and their family is filling a void in the system at present that either seems to be for the young person or for the parent but rarely for both. […] The feedback that I have had from both parents and young people has been so positive, including improving the parent and child’s relationship which in turn has re-energised the parent’s willingness to work with the school to support their child.’
A schools-based service includem provided in Glasgow similarly allowed for a more concerted and joined-up method of support which in time improves opportunities for children and young people.
Includem is currently engaging with children and young people to further understand their experiences of learning throughout the pandemic. Over 100 young people have recently shared their experiences of education over the past year-and-a-half – clear themes have emerged around increased support for learning and young people wanting to be listened to and respected in the context of their education.
Families we support have often been involved with statutory services for many years and have expressed the feeling that everything was done to them rather than with them. For example, one parent told us:
“At the beginning it felt like nobody was listening to a damn word. Not only from what I was saying but my daughter too […] It was their plan, not mine.”
As a result, many families are distrustful of services and may be disengaged from formal feedback processes. This is why includem is working to hear directly from children, young people and parents to understand their experiences and amplify their voices to those whose decisions most affect them. Young people are telling us:
“Treat me as an equal, be bothered about me and I’ll be bothered about you”
“Talk to me, include me – don’t just talk to my parents”
“Get to the bottom of what’s making me unhappy rather than putting me out of school”
The voices of these families must not be lost. It’s vital that young people who were disengaged from school pre-pandemic and face additional barriers to learning play a central role in shaping solutions. As members of Children in Scotland, we support their call to ‘ensure that young people from a range of experiences and backgrounds are heard’ in decisions about their education.
To ensure that all children and young people can overcome barriers to learning and succeed in their education, whole family support should be available to all families as and when they need it, the voices of children and young people who are traditionally disengaged must be brought to the forefront, and wide-ranging efforts to tackle child poverty must be urgently accelerated.