Alex Atherton: A Public Health Approach Can Work in Education Too
It has been a privilege to be part of the Youth Violence Commission, and to work alongside professionals from a range of services and see how this has been shaped into a final set of recommendations. Through this we have sought to model how a public health approach can be used to best effect to drive down levels of serious youth violence, particularly that which results in the loss of life.
My time as a secondary school headteacher showed me that the vast majority of teachers go into the profession for the same reasons as I did: to make a difference and support young people in reaching their potential. There are no worse examples of wasted potential than the tragedy of either a death or a long prison sentence. The work of the Commission has shown that the waste does not stop there. The costs associated with every tragedy are immense, and the only practical way of reducing them is to cut the number of tragedies themselves. Human costs aside, it is a highly inefficient way to run a country.
Schools can contribute a great deal to understanding the causes of youth violence, most notably to finding solutions for individual cases. I can think of many students where the work of the school and its staff did everything to reduce the chances of a serious incident and were successful in doing so. I also remember the times when I was reminded that the chances can never be eliminated, and those who suffered were often not those thought to be most at risk. Coordination across services can make an enormous difference. A meeting of professionals more often than not unearthed new information which provided the breakthrough. Those synergies are invaluable, but if services no longer have the capacity to send staff to those meetings and have those discussions, they are lost. School cuts usually lead to support staff cuts, and it is often those members of staff who can make the biggest difference to vulnerable young people.
Supporting the needs of the most vulnerable is often expensive in terms of time and resources, but the right interventions can ensure the cost is both temporary and also tiny when compared to those associated with youth violence. Without significant additional resources schools will not be able to make the difference and spare the cost to the public purse in the future.
Teachers cannot make any difference to young people if they are not on roll at a school. It is worth reflecting for a moment on how the phrase ‘off rolling’ ever came into being and why the process of inspection has to focus on the integrity of institutions set up to serve the needs of children. The bewildered look I get when I explain the concept to those who work in education abroad says everything.
The school system has changed a great deal in recent years, but the statutory guidance which governs admissions was last published in 2014. Thousands of young people are falling out of the system and never getting back in. This includes those with a permanent exclusion on their record. The Admissions Code needs to be reviewed as a matter of urgency and enable local authorities to intervene so all children are educated. The Butler Act of 1944 delivered this, restoring this principle is an urgent priority. Local authorities will also require additional resources for delivery. Again, this is a small outlay when compared to the alternatives.
Ofsted’s focus on off-rolling is welcome, but the significance of the issue means that the impact needs to be measured in its first year. They also cannot be expected to manage this issue alone given its engagement with each school comes on average every few years. Local authorities engage with schools on a weekly basis and know who is playing games or not taking their share of vulnerable children.
There has been much national publicity about the recruitment and retention crisis in schools, and it is well founded. The focus on supporting teachers in their first years in the profession provides the ideal opportunity for deeper professional development and engagement. Understanding attachment and trauma, amongst other areas, really matters for the future of the many thousands of young people who have had Adverse Childhood Experiences. Teachers who understand the children in front of them have a much better chance of staying in the profession, and enabling them to fulfil their potential.
Alex Atherton is an Education Consultant and former Head Teacher