At an elite boarding school in the rolling hills of the South Downs, a small group of young people from an inner-city pupil referral unit situated 10 miles away are riding a quad bike through the grounds.
Such is the perception of those who attend PRUs, you might think those boys are there illegally – raging against the wealth and privilege they don’t have access to.
But that would be a lazy, and inaccurate, stereotype. Actually, they were invited. And groups from the Key, the PRU they attend, have been coming here to Bedales for the past 15 months as part of a unique educational experiment.
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It started with an offer. Like most in education, we have been hit by huge funding cuts and this has severely curtailed what we can offer our students.
Through a mutual acquaintance, Bedales heard about the issues and then contacted us with a proposal: why didn’t we select a group of particularly at-risk young people who would most benefit from a different educational experience, and they could work with the Bedales outdoor team, every week, to build up vocational skills?
In return, the Bedales staff would have access to the unique experiences in trauma-aware practice and behaviour management of the staff at the Key.
It was a simple arrangement. We, of course, said yes.
Since then, groups of young people from the Key have developed their blacksmithing skills, cooked recipes using ingredients found on site and tended to a wide range of farm animals, among many other experiences, all under the supervision of the fantastic Bedales staff. These are things Bedales students do every day, as part of their curriculum, but to our inner-city children it is a world away from their normal experiences.
Was it a risk taking some very vulnerable children from some very challenging backgrounds into an environment of such privilege? Perhaps. There were some early anxieties about the unknown, and concerns from some students about it being too "posh". But the Bedales staff are excellent, down-to-earth people, and the pupils have responded in such a profoundly positive manner.
They have relished the opportunity to try activities they never knew existed – or had just assumed were "not for them". The visits have had a positive influence in other domains, too; back in the PRU, attendance and engagement have improved markedly, with many parents extolling the effect on their child, often praising the excited way they speak about their day.
But as excellent as the arrangement was, we wanted to push it further. Our goal for this year is to increase the amount of collaborative work we do with the pupils from both provisions.
We knew that it was important to first build relationships between the Bedales staff and the children from our centre. This has served to reduce any initial apprehensions and break down a lot of negative perceptions from our students about Bedales.
Now, we want to build on this.
We have completed a few sessions of joint work, which have proven very successful. Most recently, as part of Bedales’ school-wide festivities, some Key pupils worked with Bedales pupils to make and sell pizzas. The money raised will be invested in our own pizza oven at the Key, which will be designed and built as a future collaborative project.
Let’s be clear: all our pupils already have positive aspirations for their future – a lack of aspiration is an inaccurate stereotype of those in PRUs. What these experiences are doing, however, is increasing the scope of those aspirations, providing a much wider range of potential future endeavours and possibilities for the pupils.
What has been perhaps most pleasing is all the pupils independently realising it is the similarities between them, not the differences, that are most noticeable – the only differences being the usual teenage discussion points of music and fashion!
It helps that this has never been a project of tokenistic outreach, of a rich independent school handing out charity. This is and always has been a collaboration of equals. As staff, we share expertise and learn from each other. The Bedales staff have taken as much from us in terms of professional development as we have from them.
Similarly, the young people have all had their eyes opened and their preconceptions challenged, and have made new friends.
For all, the status quo has been radically challenged and we have been forced to see things differently. We are excited about what the next phase will bring.
Leanne Forde-Nassey is headteacher at the Key Education Centre, Hampshire, where Ollie Ward is outreach lead