‘It’s about not giving up or tossing them to the side’

1st June 2018 at 00:00
How one award-winning youth worker engages with traumatised school refusers

Katie Mackay has seen it all: boys in gangs dealing drugs when they are barely in their teens; girls whose idea of fun involves an ecstasy pill and a litre of vodka; teenagers who fling racial abuse at people trying to help them, because that’s the example they get at home; and children who sink into a deep depression and frequently disappear from school – a place they see as part of the problem.

Mackay may have a grand-sounding title – executive for the Get Into programme at the Prince’s Trust – but she puts herself on the same level as the 30 vulnerable young people she works with at any one time, sometimes literally. And her outstanding work was recognised in March when she won the supporting attainment prize at YouthLink Scotland’s National Youth Work Awards for her efforts in getting under-16s back into education.

The teenagers Mackay works with often have a deep mistrust of anyone they see as an authority figure, so right from the start she has to show them that they can trust her.

As she explains: “What I say when I first meet them – in my best Ayrshire accent – is ‘I’m no your pal, I’m no your teacher, I’m not a social worker, I’m not a policewoman. However, I’m your teammate, I will give you as much respect as I receive, and if you give me 100 per cent, I’ll give you 200, and no matter what, we’ll get somewhere.’ ”

Body language is crucial, too: she will never stand over someone she is working with, and sometimes will even get on to her knees, making herself a “bit submissive” to show that there is no hierarchy and that she is not an authority figure in the traditional sense.

She will typically see pupils daily for five weeks before a week-long transition back into school. And most of the time, the schools she works with are highly supportive of that process, as was the case with 15-year-old Jay Connor at Springburn Academy in Glasgow.

“School gave her a second chance – school gave her a tenth chance, if I’m being honest,” says Mackay. “It’s about not giving up, not just then tossing them to the side and saying, ‘D’ye know what, problem child, we’ve no got time for that.’ ”

It does not go to plan with every school, however. Sometimes it can be difficult for Mackay and her colleagues to maintain lines of communication as staff struggle with the day-to-day pressures of the job. “I get how busy everyone is in the education system – it’s just manic,” she says. “These teachers are dealing with a massive amount of people in the one day, and it’s just crazy to find the time.”

Anger is the biggest no-no

When asked for her advice to teachers on how to connect with the hardest-to-reach teens, Mackay says that, however problematic their behaviour, “the big thing is to try and not get angry – they often see anger at home, and if they see anger in a teacher, they think, ‘Well, you’re just the same.’ ”

Shouting at these pupils only “riles them even more”, so Mackay advocates a different approach, where a teacher might say, “Right, you’re shouting just now. I’m going to give you a time out. Go and take a minute.”

Rather than escalating the situation, this gives the pupil a chance to gain control over whatever is bubbling through their brain.

Mackay recalls one confrontation where it later emerged that the pupil involved had experienced a particularly bad night with their alcoholic mother. She says: “I’ve never come across a young person who is just a ‘bad seed’ – I don’t believe there is such a thing. There’s always something going on [in the background] for that young person at that moment in time.”

Mackay says these pupils have often grown up with no boundaries, so she will give them achievable goals – perhaps something as simple as showing up at 10am every day – and help them set targets beyond the short-term kicks of the drink and drugs “benders” they frequently succumb to.

With Jay, she recalls: “Sometimes words weren’t easy, so we did photography, music – I got a Scottish rapper in – and once she got a grasp of what her feelings were and what she was going through in her life, she was able to say, ‘This is where I am and this is where I want to be.’ And that’s kind of where I come in.”

Mackay’s main role, she says, is to listen. She hears people talking about girls dressing “provocatively” or wearing lots of make-up to make boys notice them, but cautions that such an attitude misreads the signals.

She says: “They’re wanting love and caring – and maybe even just somebody to speak to them, someone to ask them, ‘How are you today?’ A lot of these young people crave attention, but they just don’t know how to go about it in the right way.”

Mackay and her colleagues may keep in touch with young people for up to six months after their intensive sessions come to an end. With Jay, she has seen huge progress since the time when she “didn’t even want to be on this planet, just did not see a way forward and was really on a downward spiral”.

As Mackay says: “It’s really nice to hear Jay saying she’s loving school. She’s got a really good relationship with her guidance teacher, she’s no getting into fights – it’s lovely, so it is.”

Linda Hamilton, headteacher at Springburn Academy, says the school is “delighted with Jay’s progress working with her mentor Katie”.

She adds: “Sometimes young people are not able to cope with the structure and demands of a full-time mainstream school. It is due to the work that the school and its partners, including the Prince’s Trust, do to match our young people to the support they need to develop and thrive that young people like Jay can find an alternative way to learn. We hope she continues to go from strength to strength.”


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