The aims of this research were to (i) explore young people’s aspirations and how they feel they might achieve them, (ii) examine school-family relationships and how engagement with schools and the wider community can be improved and (iii) suggest ways of strengthening links within the community to aid service provision that enhances the life chances of young people.
Our research concludes that there are three interlinked elements shaping young people’s aspirations and school-family relationships in South Reading:
- Family, school and community attitudes to ‘youth aspiration’ are influenced by a set of place-based conditions in South Reading. On the positive side, these include strong community bonds, a sense of togetherness and a desire for good local schooling but on the negative side there is evidence of difficult socio- economic and emotional circumstances for some families and poor parental experience of education – socio-economic inequalities, challenging family situations and austerity can fracture trust, respect and damage social cohesion. Young people and their families resisted any sense of stigma and disadvantage, and yet there remained some evidence of struggle in engaging with schools and service providers.
In addition to the everyday stresses facing adolescents, such as getting good grades and peer pressure, some young people also have to cope with a testing social and emotional environment at home. Young people need help to develop coping strategies and resilience to deal with anxiety and stress, and schools/parents also tell us they need further support in this area.
- Positive reciprocal relationships between schools, families and communities have an important impact on young people’s well being, happiness, and belief in a bright future. We have also shown significant links between good parent-school communication and engagement in school, better student behaviour and more ambitious aspirations and visions for the future. Good communication isn’t easy given increasingly busy family lives and pressures facing schools and teachers.
Students need good relationships with people who believe in them and who have their best interests at heart. Not everyone gets this from family so are there more opportunities in the wider community?
Strong and trusting relationships can be undermined by discrepancies and misunderstandings between schools and parents about young people’s capabilities, life chances and their respective roles in supporting children. All parents want their children to have a bright future, and there is no lack of parental aspiration in Whitley. Most secondary school teachers felt that the future is at least bright.
- Many young people and their families needed greater support to navigate the different pathways into work, training and Higher Education but they want to have a central role in shaping how this is delivered – having a voice is important. Teachers also believe that schools and local communities could work better together. There is a high level of consensus among families, teachers and service providers that enhancing life skills are a priority, along with better information, careers advice and opportunities for work experience.
Young people also have higher ambitions when they attend clubs, engage in extra-curricular activities and experience
new environments as these enhance their soft skills, such as confidence, help them develop networks and meet role models who they can relate to. The Young Researchers have shown how exploring your future through creative methods can help develop confidence and well being but affordable opportunities for young people are currently limited in South Reading.
The breadth of the DNF research project and its richness has produced an abundance of findings and conclusions that prompt a wealth of recommendations. Underpinning the research method was an ethos of participatory engagement and community involvement and our proposal here is that the recommendations and their translation into action is equally participatory.
Moving forward, the W4R Steering Group will transform into a W4R ‘Action Group’, augmented with new service providers, young people and their families, to help translate the findings and recommendations into co-produced task oriented plans. A dissemination conference is already arranged and given the above, this event may focus on how best to take charge of the recommendations and share their implementation. The recommendations presented here are offered as starting point for a new set of conversations around the action phase of the W4R programme.
8.2 Key Findings and Recommendations
The recommendations below are presented for all the research groups: young people, families, teachers/schools and community but with an implicit emphasis on developing stronger relationships between these groups. They also emphasise the need for prompt action follow-up with proposals for initiating projects via four sub groups, communities of practice and schemes to underpin the need to generate effective relationships locally – of mutual respect and trust.
8.2.1. Young people
Students were particularly unhappy and less confident about the future when:
- Direct personal relationships were affected. Almost two thirds of young people said they were set back by problems with peers, and one-third mentioned concerns with bullying.
- They felt that teachers could sometimes be more approachable. Almost half of young people mentioned this.
- Feeling less happy at school and less confident about the future was also associated with not being able to name someone to talk to in the event of a problem. Over one third of students could not identify someone. Being in clubs is associated with more positive outcomes, although almost half of the young people interviewed were not linked to extra-curricular activities.
- Happiness was linked to managing well with, and the presentation of, schoolwork. Feeling that the school provided relevant skills also linked to happiness. 55% of students felt the school could do more to prepare them for the future.
Anxiety and stress: In addition to the everyday stresses facing adolescents, such as getting good grades and peer pressure, some young people also have to cope with a testing social and emotional environment at home. They need help to develop coping strategies and resilience to deal with anxiety and stress. Having supportive, personal connections with peers and adults is clearly important.
Positive two-way relationships: Young people also need good relationships with people who believe in them and who have their best interests at heart. Positive two-way relationships between young people and their families, teachers and peers have an important impact on young people’s well-being, happiness, and belief in a bright future.
Parent-school communication: we have also shown significant links between good parent-school communication and engagement in school. How parents talk about the school has strong links with how young people think of school.
Pathways: Many young people needed greater support to navigate the different pathways into work, training and Higher Education but they want to have a central role in shaping how this is delivered - having a voice is essential.
Young People: Recommendations
Developing a Youth-engaged W4R action group: young people themselves must be at the heart of designing and shaping the outcomes of future actions through the continuation and expansion of the Young Researchers programme; YRs should play a key in the W4R Action Group.
Sustaining and supporting aspiration – regular reviews and evaluations of future hopes or intentions with young people and advice, experience and training offered by employers, schools, FE and HE providers, community groups and other organisations such as Reading UKCIC (Sue Brackley), New Directions (Barry Wren) and the University of Reading. Recognition of the impacts of factors such as housing, job market, unemployment, family issues, should be central.
Positive Relationships – between young people (informed support, advice, access to help), between students and teachers (school council, student voice, student attitudes and teacher attitudes).
Student voice – democratic practice in school, ways in which classroom interaction engages students e.g. more interactive sessions and listening to each other.
Mentorship – Young people need mentorship from ‘people like themselves’ to help them navigate the pathways to achieving their goals. Appropriate role models, visiting speakers, careers guidance and experience and learning focused mentoring, are all important.
Dealing with anxiety and trauma – support groups, access to outside help, reducing exam pressure (extra-curricular and free space for non-exam learning/activities/projects). Reading’s proposals to set up a ‘Trauma Informed Community’ could be explored here.
Curriculum enrichment and local youth provision – we propose a Second Community Panel run by the Young Researchers to explore what shape ‘good quality’ outreach and youth work might take. Further focus should be on developing new clubs, experiential learning outside school, youth engagement in community issues for research and learning and innovative activities. This could be linked to Reading Voluntary Action’s work on youth leadership and new Ofsted requirements for Enrichment sessions to be embedded in the school day.
8.2.2 Families and Parents
Parental Aspirations - No lack of aspiration: There is no lack of aspiration amongst families in Whitley, but there is a lack of knowhow in terms of how to sustain and achieve those aspirations. Parents are well aware that their involvement in education matters to child outcomes but many do not know the pathways:
- Role models (contact with someone from the same background who has taken the path aspired to) has been found to be more useful in helping young people take the path themselves than long explanations of advantages and disadvantages.
- Importance of school clubs: Children who attended school clubs tended to be happier at school and more likely to aspire to higher education.
- Parent/school engagement and good communication: that good communication and how well parents engage with the school go together. Good communication is central. Feeling teachers are welcoming and approachable is linked to happiness and higher aspiration.
Three key issues damage parental communication with the school and affect their positivity: a lack of mutual respect, feeling the school is not addressing their concerns (especially bullying) and not feeling understood or informed.
- Regarding teachers, a welcoming and approachable attitude was strongly linked to a child’s perceived happiness at school, to whether parents think the school does enough to support their child, to how well parents engage with the school, to parental aspirations for the child and to belief in a bright future for the child.
- Regarding parents, indicators of difficult family circumstances (such as parents having had a bad experience of school or no one in the household working), were related to a less good school experience for the child, less good parent engagement and communication with the school and less high aspirations for the child to go on to further education.
Family support: A number of families in South Reading have experienced traumatic events and they need more support. Parents facing difficult family circumstances are the least likely to feel that they have enough information about what is happening to and for their children, and this may be contributing to their lack of engagement with school events and clubs.
Barriers to aspiration: lack of confidence, lack of money, difficult family circumstances (such as parents having had a bad experience of school or no one in the household working), were related to a less good school experience for the child, less good parent engagement and communication with the school and less high aspirations for the child to go on to further education. The importance of life skills was mentioned frequently.
Parent/school communication - finding new ways of linking and communicating with schools and adopting a collaborative community attitude towards supporting positive relationships.Learning and life skills - setting up a community wide parent adult learning group with New Directions (Barry Wren) for sharing and learning from past experiences – run by parents within schools and other community settings.
Engaging parents in schools - roles for parents in school on school premises and at school events and shared learning, particularly for parents with poor experience of their own schooling. Newly formed parents groups for fundraising (e.g. Whitley Park) could be a useful model here.
Aspirations for parents – supporting families’ knowledge of pathways and opportunities available to young people through better engagement with employers, HE institutions, careers services, schools.
Family support and the home learning environment
– some families with difficult circumstances require additional support from service providers and schools; develop new ways of supporting a more enriched home environment; talk about the school positively as parental attitude affects child perspective; find out about and praise child achievements.
The future’s not so bright: Teachers are less certain about the future than parents or the young people themselves. We note that parents rate their children as being happier in school than teachers do, and they are also less likely than teachers to blame the school for the misbehaviour of their children. The vast majority of parents’ rate teachers highly on a scale of how welcoming and approachable they are.
Adequately Preparing Young People in School: Teachers, parents and young people who felt that futures were being adequately prepared for in school were all more likely to rate the future of children more highly. Around half of teachers did not feel young people were being adequately prepared in these ways. ‘Adequate preparation’ includes a focus on helping students’ access pathways to:
- Enhanced attitudes to learning.
- Understanding the opportunities offered by higher education or other forms of training and work experience (and how to access these).
- Training in life skills and working around barriers that parents feel hold their children back (lack of money, opportunity and confidence).
- Disengaged children may benefit from a curriculum more relevant to their needs.
Support for teachers: teachers emphasise that time is needed outside of regular classes but still in school time to deal with behaviour issues, relationships issues and with other child development programmes. They want to pull in assistance from the local community and outside agencies.
Classroom practice – more interactive and supporting, not just inspiring aspiration; tackling exam pressure; embedding new learning opportunities in the curriculum (Ofsted enrichment sessions).
Community collaborations - Knowledge of the community to engage community assistance and links for joint and collaborative projects i.e. links with local Universities.
Positive communications with parents – also inform parents about current topics/upcoming tests in order to aid parent-child communication - do not assume parents understand procedures – letters home are effective – ensure timely reminders – some parents appreciate the use of homework as a tool for their engagement.
Develop and value soft skills– half of teens find it hard to approach teachers with a problem.
Extra-curriculum support for non-academic issues - provide time and resources out of class for dealing with non-academic issues – more emphasis on discovering pathways to reaching one’s goals.
Communications between organisations could be improved:
Working for increased community engagement and tackling stigma in and around Whitley. Addressing stigma involves changing the way that each of us talks about Whitley.
Supportive relationships are key to developing aspirations:
Parents, teachers and others in the community who genuinely put something into the lives of young people inspire them to give something back.
Respect, engagement and responsibility cuts both ways:
In the relationship between young people and adults. Celebrating and learning from local role models highlights positive pathways forwards.
Extra-curricular activities that provide hands-on learning experience also reveal pathways forwards. Accessibility to extra- curricular activities in Whitley is increased if they are local, free, and promoted via the school. Collaboration with schools would help with targeting the young people who might benefit the most.
Improving careers advice for both students and parents, ensuring that Whitley is not by-passed by job opportunities and understanding that higher education is not necessarily a sign of ‘high aspiration’ there are alternatives such as apprenticeships.
Community Panel - led by the Young Researchers on youth provision in South Reading; task centred and action based to align current work on local youth provision.
Community wide ‘charter’ for aspiration – what is an aspiring community?
Community practice projects – where schools and parents jointly explore local issues with university support (Aspire2); curriculum links with schools for community development with WCDA and WEC (e.g. community museum).
Community orientation training for teachers and parents.
Community support for issues affecting families e.g. troubled families.
Community Assets - researching and promoting more awareness of assets in the community e.g. skills of parents.
Our research journey and participatory ethos has already led to new partnerships and collaborations that we hope will provide the foundations for the task ahead. Some possibilities include:
- Setting up parent, teacher, community and youth groups (e.g. 4 in each group to turn recommendations in this report into a handbook or manual for guidance that each sector should adopt).
- Community of practice – joint or collaborative projects to tackle local priorities together in mixed groups with university support.
- Art of conversation – at least one major session before December to bring a mixed group together to explore issues of respect, communication and listening – relationships count.
- Whitley for Real Action Group will curate and shape the outcomes of this research going forward.