Now that we’ve been back in the centre for a few weeks, we can reflect on the effect that the six-week summer holiday has had on our pupils.
It has been challenging, as it always is at this time of year.
We’ve seen a lot of unproductive behaviours exhibited by the pupils as they have slowly become reaccustomed to the rules and norms of centre life.
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The boundaries that we put in place are absolutely essential for so many of our pupils. They are looking for adults to co-regulate with, adults who will show them the appropriate way to respond in particular situations, to make them feel safe and supported.
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Children feel safe with clear, explicit boundaries. They also benefit – particularly in settings such as ours – from developing close relationships with staff, and it is through these boundaries and this feeling of safety that such relationships thrive.
The centre represents an opportunity for safety, warmth and even love. But for many of our students, the summer break represented the polar opposite.
Many come from chaotic backgrounds, with familial instability and parents who have high levels of needs themselves.
A common story was that they had spent the month and a half off without much in the way of boundaries, often staying at friends’ houses, away from parental supervision.
This means our already-vulnerable pupils were putting themselves in even more vulnerable positions.
Testing the limits
Now that they have returned to the centre, their unproductive behaviours have been them pushing back at the boundaries we put in place. They test the limits and we hold firm.
After a while, they get used to our way of life again. We are showing them that they are worthy of attachment to attuned adults. That they are worthy of care. That they belong.
Many of these pupils have numerous professional agencies working with them and their families. The list of acronyms is long and confusing; we have YCP, YOT, MET, FCAMHS, CAMHS, FSW, CS to name a few.
They work closely with us and some of our pupils who have the highest level of need and can make a huge difference to their outcomes.
They support the families over the summer, but can only meet for a short time each week; it’s so challenging to help that young person make positive choices on a consistent basis when they are potentially without contact, aside from their peers, for such a long time.
We’ve got very real concerns over County Lines drug dealing, exploitation and associated drug use, including the devastating effects when the young person is "coming down" from a high; it is very difficult to provide support that is adequate enough to temper the erratic behaviour and mood swings that this involves.
We pride ourselves on being empathetic; we understand why the pupils’ behaviour is affected by their situations, especially after such a long time away.
But we are also very clear that the boundaries won’t be altered. We will maintain high expectations, as we have made it explicitly clear that we want the best for them.
This article is not intended to denigrate parents. The six-week break is so relatively lengthy. Our parents work incredibly hard with the tools they have and sometimes support is not forthcoming (but a blog about cuts to services will have to be saved for another time).
As for the six-week break, while there are definitely arguments in favour of splitting it up and sharing it over the year, there are plenty of people who adore their long holiday.
So it comes back to what we, as a society, can do to support vulnerable young people during the summer break.
And this will probably come down to either a philosophical discussion regarding responsibility or a practical one about funding and available services.
Once again, it will have to wait until another time...
Leanne Forde-Nassey is headteacher and Ollie Ward is outreach lead at The Key Education Centre, Hampshire