For teenagers living in difficult circumstances, going to school can be a huge challenge.
Over the last year I have home tutored a 15 year old boy in Bristol. Initially, my tuition agency was contacted by his school because the school wanted a tutor to help a boy who they said was falling behind in his English and wanted to pay for someone to teach him once a week at his home.
On our first meeting Robert (not his real name) seemed positive, energetic and keen to learn. I was struck by how well we got on.
I was also struck by Robert’s home. Around the living room were piles of random objects: Christmas crackers, duvets and bowls of dog food. It looked like it hadn’t been cleaned or decorated for years.
Robert has missed most of his Secondary education. At an age where he should be taking his GCSEs he is still at the educational level of a year 7 pupil (an 11 year old). He suffers from anxiety, which started in his second year of Secondary school. His attendance rate has plummeted from 98% in year 7 to 11% for the first 7 weeks of the present academic year. He often finds it too difficult to leave home and will sometimes get as far as the school gates before returning home.
This level of being absent from school isn’t uncommon. According to the most recent Department of Education report on school absences, “one in nine pupils was persistently absent” in the school year 2017-18 while 13.9% of Secondary school students were persistently absent.
Robert has no friends his own age and refuses to communicate with fellow students. His first year at school seemed to be normal but in year 8 he started to refuse to attend classes and withdraw from all sides of school life. He tells me he once tried to take his own life. After two assessments by an educational psychologist his community paediatrician concluded that he needs ‘a much more specialised provision with a higher level of adult support.’
Staff at Robert’s school have tried various strategies: small classes, one to one tuition (this is what I do, but at his home), work experience, a nurture group and arranging for Robert to look after a younger student who also suffers from anxiety. The school has bought him uniform. None of it has helped him engage.
It is difficult to pin down how Robert got to this point. I have been trying to assess the factors that have led to him being at risk of leaving school and slipping into the category of NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training).
Robert lives with his mum and his father’s brother. His uncle helped Robert and his mum get away from his father after the father had started to become violent towards Robert. His dad is in Torquay and Robert isn’t in communication with him. Mental health staff believe the absence of his father is affecting him and he needs to talk about it.
The state of the home, in an area of social housing in East Bristol, can’t help Roger’s state of mind. It’s disorganised, dark and dirty. The attic is piled with old furniture, clothes and litter. It needs to be cleared out and cleaned. Worse, there isn’t space for everyone: Robert’s mum sleeps on the sofa. The family is now in consultation with social housing, hoping to be moved to a new property.
Add to this is Robert’s mum’s health situation. She tells me that she suffers from “Fibromyalgia, slipped disks in neck and back, arthritis, diabetes, asthma, depression and learning difficulties.”
This requires Robert to be a carer for her. She has low literacy levels and they support each other in day to day life. They have a close relationship with the consequence that he worries about her and unfortunately it means that Robert has experienced a very limited life outside of his close family.
Recently, I attended an EHCP meeting with Robert, his mum and social workers and teachers. When asked if they go out together, his mum said she takes him ‘to the shops’ but nothing more. One of Robert’s mum’s goals, set by the social worker, is to spend more time with her son, getting him out of the house.
Although it is recommended that Robert has ‘more specialised provision’ there isn’t a space in special schools. Alternative provision that might be offered in South Gloucestershire would not be appropriate because of the proximity to other students, many of whom might have been excluded from mainstream education for behaviour issues.
Robert’s key care worker is Sophie. She is young, energetic, fun and very efficient. She tells me that when she was first allocated to Robert’s case the family wouldn’t let social services in the house.
Sophie has done a lot to help improve Robert’s life. She has arranged for another young carer to play football with him each week.
She is organising college visits for him next year in suitable environments. She has arranged for him to visit a swimming pool. She has, after much persuading, succeeded in getting a CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) case worker to look into Robert’s case. It’s not an exaggeration to say her work has been invaluable.
However, in the last chat I had with Sophie before she leaves the case she seemed to be frustrated with how unreliable Robert and his family were in communicating and engaging with her and those people that she had employed to help the family.
There also seemed to be a suspicion that Robert’s anxiety wasn’t as big a problem as was first expected. Was Robert just using this as a blanket excuse for getting out of going to school? There is the potential for anxiety to be passed between family members and with both Robert’s mother and uncle suffering the symptoms it’s possible Robert is simply mirroring their behaviour.
Sophie has reminded Robert’s mother on several occasions that parents need a legitimate reason not to send their children to school. On my last visit, Robert said he hadn’t been to school for the last two weeks because he “had had a cold.”
It’s stories of people like Roger and his mum which highlight the importance of education in improving lives and reducing inequality. There is a clear picture of generational poverty and educational failure here; a reminder of how difficult it can be to achieve change.
I wonder how different things might have been had Robert’s mum had more opportunities or success at school. ‘I was more out than in’, she tells me. ‘I’d just bunk off.’ ‘Because I couldn’t read they just pushed me to the back of the class.’ The implication being she was ignored because of her low literacy levels.
Is it partly the fault of the system? Applications for finding alternative schooling for Robert were delayed unnecessarily. Funding for services that might help Robert such as CAMHS have been drastically cut.
However, having worked alongside many professionals dealing with Robert I have seen high levels of commitment and care from people who are trying to improve his life. The sad reality is that however much help is offered it relies on Robert’s engagement (or his mum’s consent) and that is not always forthcoming.
What do I hope for for Robert’s future? Although it’s too late for him to achieve a qualification such as a GCSE or BTEC, we have started a life skills course in Animal Care, run by ASDAN, which will give him a qualification. Most important, though, is to sign him up to a college course next year, building his confidence to go back into education post-16. This is what we’re aiming towards.
He is a giving, bright and kind boy with so much to offer and I would hate him to continue the cycle of anxiety and isolation which has dogged his teenage years.
Recently, I met my old head of department, a mentor when I was starting out as a Secondary school English teacher. He said: “Many people fall through the cracks when they’re young but then manage to improve their lives later in life.”
Robert has already fallen through the cracks and I hope one way or another he can find his way out.