How to get ‘written off’ pupils learning again

Focus on the four Rs, say these youth workers: relationships, role models, routine and relevance

Linda Bendle and Jordan Butler

How to get pupils who are ‘written off’ learning again

What is it that makes a young person likely to drop out of education? And how can you prevent that from happening?

These are questions that drive our work at the social enterprise, Heavy Sound. We work with young people who are either at risk of dropping out or who already have, through our individual programmes in music, mixed martial arts, peer mentoring, mountain biking and bike maintenance

We are a community interest company and take referrals from East Lothian Council. Often, the young people who come to us are among the most vulnerable in the county and may have been written off by the education system.

However, to date we have a 100 per cent attendance rate from our 42 students, with many going on to achieve good outcomes in education and training.

For us, keeping young people engaged in education is all about the 4Rs: relationships, role models, routine and relevance.

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Everything is about relationships. We start by building trust with the young people and connecting with them every single day. You don’t always know what has already happened to that child that morning. To expect them to walk through the door and just start listening is incredibly difficult.

So, we try and recognise how that young person is feeling before we start with what’s planned. Maybe they need de-escalating, something to eat or a bit of nurturing before you get in to learning.

Role models

A lot of our young people are seeking a positive role model in their life. Many of them have been through extreme trauma and they are very astute at reading people. That’s why a lot of our staff have lived experience, they can connect because they’ve been through many of the same things. 

There is an authenticity there that that you can’t learn or put a price on. In an ideal world, you’d have people with lived experience in every school – someone who can connect about the issues these young people are facing every day of their lives, from drugs to violence and mental health.


Kids thrive on routine and structure. We start each day by checking in with the young people and understanding what’s happening in their lives. We have a flexible timetable but everything we do is aligned to skills, training and qualifications.

We’ll usually start with something physical early in the day, which helps focus them, before doing skills development in the afternoon. We keep everything stable and predictable. An individual can fall out with us one day and they still get a warm welcome the next day. There is consistency and connection. 


We will speak to the young person and be honest about the outcomes we need to meet around literacy and numeracy. However, we’ll also ask what they want to do. That way, we give them some ownership and control. If you look at the care-experienced young people we work with, they often have very little control over any aspect of their life.

So giving them an element of control is hugely important. For example, they may be interested in music and, through that, we can cover literacy, technical skills, working collaboratively with others and having a positive mental health outlet.

It’s about tapping into what they find interesting and using that as a vehicle for change.

Jordan Butler founded Heavy Sound and Linda Bendle is the organisation’s operations manager

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Linda Bendle and Jordan Butler

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