In January 1998, five members of the Urban Programmes Research Group began a research project commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The main aim of the project was to devise, run and evaluate media work which could raise the voice of excluded young people, particularly those whose families were the focus of preventive work with different agencies.
We ran the project with a group of Year 11 male pupils from an East Midlands comprehensive school. Many of them had been excluded (temporarily or permanently) from school, most of them had faced other forms of social exclusion, and all of them now attended a ' contact group' run on Wednesday mornings by a local charity as an alternative to school.
The project used group and individual work, interviews, drama, brainstorming and video research methods to explore their theme and devise the outline for their project.
They were adamant from the outset that they wanted to make a videotape about the unfairness of the school system: the ways in which they had been singled out for attention, and the ways in which they were frequently denied any real say in their treatment. The finished product is a 17-minute tape designed to put the young people's voice over to a series of influential adults. It is presented as a mixture of news, current affairs and a drama in which young people and adults swap roles to debate the problem. In this way the tape explores three main issues which came out of the groupwork:
"It's not the parents' fault".In this section, the group explore their reactions to the popular view that non-attendance and bad behaviour are the fault of parents. They argue that teachers have as much responsibility for this as anyone else, and need to teach in a way which can keep pupils more interested and engaged in relevant school work.
"Teachers want us out". Here, the young people express their confusion about school policies and practices. They give examples of teachers who openly encourage them to skive off lessons, and describe a system which (on the one hand) keeps them out of school, and which (on the other hand) punishes them for non-attendance.
"Teachers stick together". The final section concentrates on a major criticism voiced by the young people: that teachers regularly fail to listen to them, and tend to close ranks against their opinions. They feel that there are different rules for teachers and pupils, and that they have no constructive way of expressing their grievances.
The group had planned to screen the video to four key audiences: a selection of staff at their school; local head teachers; governors; and the Chief Education Officer of the LEA. Their intention was twofold: to have their voice heard clearly in a debate about these issues, and to encourage teachers and officials to be more sensitive to the needs of young people when tackling the joint problems of exclusion and non-attendance.
The project has now hit a problem, however. The school has had a protracted period of inspection, and has now been placed in Special Measures. There is a new headteacher and a great deal of work to be done by the staff and governors, not least in reducing unauthorised absences and exclusions. The head and deputy have seen the video and decided that they are not willing to show it to staff at the school, and do not want it shown to anyone else either. They acknowledge that it is powerful, but believe it is too one-sided, and too emotive to show without major alterations. Negotiations are still taking place.
The research team, meanwhile, are evaluating the project. It has undoubtedly served to give this particular group of young people a clear focus for their anger and resentment. The group have worked hard on the project (attending extra sessions; planning, discussing and debating their case; making all the arrangements for recording, screening and promoting their work; and editing the material during their half term break). Two of them even attended an international conference on school exclusion to present their work-in-progress and to find out about policies in Europe.
But the project has not been easy. Over-ambitious at times, and too drawn out (it has taken nearly five months to complete), the work has presented the team with some serious practical and theoretical problems. Should such work be repeated more widely, and if so how could it be supported? What does it mean to "raise a voice" - especially if some people are not prepared to listen? And, most importantly, what real and lasting impact can such work have on the lives and experiences of such young people?
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For information about this project please email Kaye Haw