Recently, I went to visit an alternative provision in Blaby, Leicestershire. The visit served two purposes: the first, to celebrate British Science Week and use some of our Beyond Science resources, and the second was for a wider look at what different education settings can look like.
You can also subscribe to Beyond Secondary Resources for access to thousands of worksheets and revision tools. Our site was created with teachers in mind and includes lots of teacher instructions, however, it also contains content for students that will be particularly useful when revising! You can sign up for a free account here and take a look around at our free resources before you subscribe too.
This was my first visit to a classroom in over two years. This isn’t a typical secondary school – Clover Learning Community is an alternative provision, a last bastion of hope for students who can’t quite make it in a mainstream setting. Ten years ago, these young people would have been in a local authority PRU.
I went into this with recollections of when I last visited a Pupil Referral Unit, the closest thing in my mind to what this setting might be like. As I scanned back in my memory, I remembered the prison-like metal toilets and code words for urgent situations so vividly.
As my Google Maps signalled that I was getting ever closer, I wondered if I had input the correct postcode; this beautiful setting, just past a church with a wonky red-brick wall and off a dusty little track, was not what I had envisaged when I had steeled myself for the day. A decent-sized flat-top building that didn’t look dissimilar to a cute little primary school, informed me that this alternative provision was something different – a different approach to an age-old problem of what to do with students who can’t be educated in a mainstream school.
It’s fair to say that this return to a classroom was a baptism of fire. After fifteen years of teaching, I can proudly state that not much shocks me, but I have to admit that the students’ fondness for four-letter words initially left me wondering how they ever played Wordle.
What is an alternative provision?
Local authorities are responsible for arranging suitable full-time education for permanently excluded pupils, and for other pupils who – because of illness or other reasons – would not receive suitable education without such provision. This applies to all children of compulsory school age resident in the local authority area, whether or not they are on the roll of a school, and whatever type of school they attend. Full-time education for excluded pupils must begin no later than the sixth day of the exclusion.Department for Education
For more information, see the government document, here.
My excitement and optimism for the day was fuelled by black coffee. Contrastingly, the thought of spending the morning doing science with me really seemed to irk these Key Stage 3 and 4 students. I breezed in with my tray of resources and plants and worksheets regardless. I had to remind myself that the last time these students were in a traditional school setting, they were being asked to leave it. I had to remember that in many of their lessons, they would have been mixed in with thirty other students all vying for attention.
One of my favourite quotes about working in a school is:
Students who are loved at home, come to school to learn, and students who aren’t, come to school to be loved.Nicholas Ferroni – @NicholasFerroni
When the students realised that I wasn’t going to make them do a test or send them out, or make them do reams and reams of writing, I remembered an old adage from my teacher training all of those years ago: respect is earned, not just given. We spoke about their trials and tribulations, and I had to admit they had a point regarding their thoughts on how a one-size-fits-all approach to education simply isn’t adequate.
I learned their names swiftly; there were only six pupils in the first session. They didn’t bother to learn my name, and why would they? They had probably been abandoned by countless people in their short life experience thus far. I asked them about what they had enjoyed about science in their respective previous settings and was cross with myself that I had led us all into a conversational cul-de-sac. You can imagine how decorated the responses were with the aforementioned four-letter words.
I decided to opt for short activities for these students, offering low demand tasks in order to build their injured confidence when it came to an academic subject. I soon realised that these kids were sharp and quick-witted. Was their attempt at my low-stakes starter a subtle nod to the 2022 British Science Week theme of growth, perhaps?
As they scanned my face for the reaction that they presumably expected, I congratulated them on finding some of the tier 3 key words for today’s session, and we moved on to the next task.
I felt like something had gone right in this session, when one of them asked me what flavour of vape I would like to try at breaktime – “watermelon or bubblegum?” Pleased with the beginnings of acceptance from this seemingly tough crowd, I lied and said “err, I only smoke roll ups but thanks anyway”. They softened after this human interaction. I noticed that the beauty of a setting like Clover Learning Community is that you can have the time to speak to and get to know each student with much more expediency.
I also noticed how highly these kids thought of Jadie and Bhav, the Head and Deputy of the facility. It was evident that the kids were protective and fond of these authority figures, and although they didn’t always respond in the way one might hope, they could definitely be chivvied along by these two staff members. This is in no small part to do with the relationships forged, and the knowledge about each student and their strengths and foibles.
The students know that they are cared for, (which isn’t to say that young people in mainstream schools aren’t cared for) but it is my gut feeling that these students need to have the love and care they require signalled to them in abundance before they’ll trust you enough to humour you by conceding to your requests. Jadie and Bhav could choose to work in easier settings, but they truly see the value in this underfunded and, for the most part, thankless endeavour, and for that, they’re unsung heroes.
As we progressed through the range of British Science Week-themed activities, I noticed how chatty, vibrant and open to learning these kids were. The initial responses about their thoughts on science lessons were at odds with the work they were producing, the engagement they had and the thoughts they were conveying.
The student who produced the work below was telling me about how glad he was that he was at Clover Learning Community, and how he was going to get his Maths and English GCSEs and then he could follow his passion for sport and could go on to college to ultimately learn to become a personal trainer. I could see the unfairness and frustration of having a clear goal, but with so many obstacles in the way, and I considered how it’s good that places like this exist, so that young students aren’t just written off because they don’t make the best first impression in the classroom. If you nurture them and give them a bit of time, they are literally just the same as any other students.
Does this look like the work of someone who thinks that science is, and I quote, ‘f*%king s%*t’?
As we moved outside to do a more practical activity in the garden area, I internally likened the experience to the experiment we were doing. If you place all of the runner bean seeds in one pot and expect them all to grow to their full potential, then you will be disappointed. If they are planted in a nurturing environment where they are cared for individually, then they have the chance to flourish.
And with time, flourish they did!
At the end of the session, the key stage 4 students concluded that ‘it was alright, actually’ and they themselves enquired if I would go back and teach them. The students collectively agreed that they would like some sex education lessons, as they have missed out on so much of their formal education for one reason or another. A couple of the students stayed behind and were eagerly recalling any and all science knowledge they could remember. It was charming and sweet, and in stark contrast to their outward demeanour. It reminded me that these are just kids. They’re just kids who want attention and to be nurtured.
To summarise my thoughts, I reflected on how a plant that is growing where it is not welcome, for whatever reason, is considered to be a weed. A gardener can reframe that narrative by repotting the so-called weed, or planting it elsewhere. They can transform it into a successful plant in its own right.
That is what I think the Clover Learning Community is – the correct setting for people to flourish and grow at their own pace. I wondered if that’s why the Clover Learning Community is named after a weed?
Clover is a perennial weed with shamrock-like leaves and fragrant white flowers. It colonises gardens and lawns using runners that fix into the ground, and competes with other plants for space to grow.
Just like these students competing for attention in a crowded classroom? I will ask Jadie and Bhav next time I go and visit their alternative provision with some more Beyond resources…
Don’t forget to read even more of our blogs here! You can also subscribe to Beyond for access to thousands of secondary teaching resources. You can sign up for a free account here and take a look around at our free resources before you subscribe too.