"We have to get them to fall back in love with education" - life at the Stephen Longfellow alternative provision academy
There was a time when pupils who were not in mainstream education were sent to a ‘prefab’ building in the corner of a school playground so as not to disturb classmates
On the final day of the Yorkshire Evening Post’s look at education in the city, Emma Ryan visited the Stephen Longfellow Academy, before the coronavirus lockdown, to find out how the image and stigma attached to alternative provision is changing.
Walk into Stephen Longfellow Academy and you would think it was any standard secondary school: pupils in uniform; a principal and staff structure; school notices on the wall; a bright, modern building.
Even the chief executive of the Gorse Academies Trust which owns the school, bases his permanent office there.
It is only when you look closer that you start to see a few differences. Class sizes of just six or seven students, gated access to school grounds and security trained staff.
At any time a situation could flare up and escalate and staff are trained for violent situations and ways to de-escalate them.
Principal Ben Mallinson told the YEP: “After a week off or a long weekend it’s hard.
“The first half an hour of the day is kind of temperature checking and sweeping the room for which students have had a difficult experience or evening prior to coming back to school.
“Sometimes they won’t say ‘Sir, this happened…’. You have to take them to a place they feel comfortable to open up.”
That can be hard, as the students at Stephen Longfellow come from a wide range of backgrounds – disadvantaged, affluent, and for a variety of reasons, such as ill health hampering education, persistent absence, at risk of permanent exclusion, crime and gangs or maybe standard education does not fit with their best skills.
The job of good and effective alternative provision is to re-engage students with education and help them get back on the right track – starting with trying to make sure students leave with access to the right type of qualifications such as A Level, a high quality apprenticeship and a T Level (being introduced later in the year) as a route to university.
Sir John Townsley, the chief executive officer of the Gorse Academies Trust which manages Stephen Longfellow, explains: “People from the most affluent backgrounds realised that A-Levels represent the route to the top in this city, so some of the less effective qualifications were being taken by the less advantaged students and did not lead to very much.
“What you have to have in place are two fundamental things – opportunity for a child from a very disadvantaged background to have the same opportunity to go to Imperial College doing physics as a child from a more advantaged background and, every child should have the opportunity to have careers advice or guidance from a young age to encourage them to make wise choices.
“We have to get them to fall back in love with education. In order to get their life back on track, the greatest gift we can give them is qualifications.”
Stephen Longfellow, named in honour of a man who died in a climbing accident in 2015 and made an enormous contribution to the lives of hundreds of vulnerable and disadvantaged children across the city, is the only alternative provision of its kind in the city and is keen to change the perceptions of what is available for students who have fallen out of mainstream education.
Mr Mallison said: “In 2017 I went to a national forum talking about alternative provision and it recommended that multi-academy trusts should consider opening their own. We have done that and it wasn’t easy as we didn’t have much to go on in terms of replica models. I would like to see others such as this open across the city and the country. It is important that people see it as part of the education offering and not as a downward movement.”
Staff wear suits and smart office dress and are addressed as Mr, Mrs or Miss. Students have a uniform and are penalised if it is not adhered to. Outside coats are not allowed inside, jewellery is limited and students are sent home to remove “excessive make-up”.
There is a structure to the school day and students get three meals a day and a snack.
Sir John says the “tough love” approach is better for students in the long run as it teaches standards and discipline.
However, all is not as regimented as it seems.
Stephen Longfellow has a designated director of physical and mental health who works with primary and secondary students to give guidance on their physical, emotional and mental health as well as creating individual healthcare plans, organising health related sessions such as immunisations and referrals.
There is also a therapy led approach to issues like emotional health, anxiety, stress, mental health issues, sexual health and substance misuse.
Mr Mallinson says every pupil’s needs are different and teachers have to work out the way to get the best out of young people.
The feedback they give to parents is likely not to be their son or daughter got an A* in English, it might be simply that they were pleasant to teachers, it is not that they solved a maths test, it is that they turned up that day.
He said: “It is like a Rubik’s Cube, it can be solved but there are many different ways. Look for the good in every single young person. They have made inappropriate choices but they are keen to show you their strengths. You have to find that piece and that element of that person and work with it.
“Some students are extremely challenging to the point where you think ‘can we do something here?’ but you have to bide your time and you will make a difference, that trust will take a long time.
“They have been let down, they will push you beyond your boundaries and you have to remain professional and make them understand.
“It is not an 8.30 to 3pm job, it is a way of life and something you invest in and the biggest payback is seeing students leave here happier physically and mentally.”