From education to employment

Amazing Things Happen in Small Places: Engaging Hard to Reach Learners

David Lett, Co-Founder of ToolShed

Imagine you have just made the transition to year seven, to big school, and it is the end of the first term.

That means it is just before Christmas (an exciting time of the year for any young person) and you have spent a total of 12-13 weeks in year seven …. and you hate it.

Hate feels a strong word to use but it sums up how you feel and the connection you have towards the school you have only just transitioned to. In just a few short weeks you have developed a strong dislike (a hate) that has been fuelled by:

  1. A sense that “this place does not understand me”
  2. A strong feeling that “I cannot meet the expectations being made of me”
  3. A personal belief that there is “no point speaking out because my card is already marked, and no one would listen anyway”
  4. A growing mindset that “I do not belong here and hence don’t want to be here”

I think we can all agree it wouldn’t be a pleasant state to be in and if we felt such negative feelings for a club, society, etc then we would vote with our feet and leave or stop attending.

The transition from year 6 to 7 is one of the most important personal changes that a young person will make and represents one of the biggest changes in their early life.

Yet for a small number it leaves them confused, frustrated, fearful and quite soon angry.

The change becomes a major hurdle in their lives and one that they genuinely feel they have little control or choice over.

A prolonged period of stress then follows combined with growing anxiety – it is little wonder that negative behaviours result and many of these impacted young people seek some form of self-medication, often through drug use.

In my experience the schools try their very best to help these young people; after all, they know the environment they have created, shaped and manage suits at least 85% of the young people who enter it.

Many strive to find a way to deliver what the 10% need and are also frustrated for these young people – perhaps realising that the system they offer cannot cater to the unique needs of this small group.

Many of these young people end up in Pupil Referral Units which collect together those young people in an area whose behaviour means they simply cannot stay at a mainstream school.

I have yet to meet a young person who spoke positively about their time at a PRU.

This is not the PRU’s fault and is down to branding – as one young person once told me “everyone knows you only go to a PRU if you are a trouble maker or stupid”. By collecting together young people in this way you give life to a system that cannot shake its image within broader society.

So, where might we look for solutions for these young people?

Surely, they still need to be educated, to be prepared for their next steps, to be able to find employment and to learn how to earn their own living?

Well, over the past three years I have been helping to create a new type of learning environment and one that caters for those young people whose learning needs do not suit the standard secondary system of education.

This centre is based in High Wycombe and is called The ToolShed. We (New Meaning Foundation) opened it in June 2015 and over the last three years it has helped over 80 young people start a career in construction.

Over 85% of graduates have progressed into work and/or further training. They came from many and varied backgrounds and they had all left school with few to no qualifications.

Graduates leave the ToolShed with positive attitudes and a drive to make their own living. This doesn’t happen by chance and is very much down to our positive reinforcement model.

We focus at least 75% of our time rewarding positive behaviours vs punishing poor or disruptive behaviours. Our young people quickly learn that they get more from us (focus, time, praise, attention, direct help, work experience, etc) when they act and behave in a positive way.

Over the three years, we have asked young people who come to The ToolShed what their experience of mainstream secondary school was like.

Initially they were reticent to say much for fear that their views wouldn’t be taken seriously, or they would be lectured to the point they feel like they are a problem.

When they did express their views, they all promoted similar opinions (as outlined above) and across the board their hate affair with their place of education started before Christmas of year seven. Just 13 weeks into what becomes a 195-week ordeal or personal trial of endurance.

One of Nietzsche’s most powerful quotes was “he who has a why can endure almost any how”. In our experience the young people who come to the ToolShed have not been able to discover their “why” in mainstream education establishments.

Such an environment is not meaningful to them and hence they push back or fight against the system itself. For many the experience is a true test of endurance that erodes their self-confidence and personal motivation to find and shape a meaningful life.

The Government’s answer in the past has been to trial other forms of school that perhaps blend an academic and vocational curriculum. For example, Studio Schools or University Technical Colleges (UTCs).

However, these remain “mass delivery” systems with large student numbers and shape an environment that does not support the students The ToolShed works with.

I believe that at least 10% (potentially 15%) of young people in every secondary school year group (7 to 11) do not suit a large, “mass delivery” education system and in fact it directly helps to shape a negative, disaffected, disengaged and disruptive behaviour pattern that causes 90% of the issues in any given state school.

The ToolShed focuses on 15 to 19-year olds and while any success we have achieved is down to a number of factors, a key one is that we are small.

We only offer one course (construction) and we only accept 24 students. Even then we split the 24 into two groups of 12 and yet again to groups of 6 when in the classroom or workshop. It is the small nature (in terms of numbers) of the centre that I believe makes the difference.

Many of the young people we support suffer from anxiety and our small student numbers and general size feels less threatening to them. We also work with the tough young people who were most likely the bullies at their mainstream school. Because we are small they have less need to be the big “alpha male” and we are better able to guide their behaviour using positive reinforcement techniques.

We also constantly reinforce that The ToolShed has one core “why” – enabling young people to discover for themselves how to confidently earn their own living. That is our mantra and we believe that society would benefit from a SMALL IS BIG approach.

Our little ToolShed has generated over £3.2 million in Social Return on Investment – every £1 spent on educating our young people has generated just over £6 in social value.

The ToolShed has directly contributed to keeping multiple young people out of prison, hence reducing the cost to society by helping these young people develop constructive vs destructive behaviours.

We also believe that such centres have to be spaced out so that the young people attending have the space and security they need to grow and develop.

These small centres need to be placed across a town/city so that students from each one do not “bump” into each other, easily mingle and/or are able to think of themselves as a rival group.

If we are genuinely focused on the development of young people, then we need to accept that the mass delivery system does not work for every young person.

Such a system creates diseconomies when you take into account the teaching hours needed to manage the behaviour of this subset – we are kidding ourselves if we think one system fits all – it simply doesn’t.

I am sure we can prove that for some young people a SMALL IS BIG approach, while costing more to run will deliver much larger personal, community and social impact. It will better enable these young people to discover their pathway to earning their own living – throughout their life.

Based on the ToolShed model (which is not unique) we need to trial a:

  • HAIR Shed
  • FOOD Shed
  • BIKE Shed
  • CARE Shed

We also need to remember to focus on the needs of these young people, to better support exasperated parents/carers and to enable the young people to flourish in an environment that suits them. In the same way we are better at catering for people with physical disabilities, we also need to do the same for this group of young people.

If we don’t and simply offer what we always have, then we will continue to get the same results – we will go on punishing these young people because they don’t fit the system.

I plan to keep working on proving a SMALL is BIG approach so that the evidence becomes so compelling it cannot be denied.

At this point in time I know that such a system needs to be built around five core fundamentals:

  1. Small numbers – no more than 24-30
  2. Space for centres to breath – do not cram them together on a campus
  3. Positive reinforcement – lets quit motivating through threat or punishment
  4. Meaningful development – promoting that attitude gives life altitude
  5. Adaptability – flexing the small system to meet each unique need

The last three years have been tough and yet also very rewarding.

Over the coming years I fully expect to learn more from the young people who pass through the ToolShed than they learn from me – I am relishing that prospect.

David Lett, Co-Founder of ToolShed

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