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"We just talk things through and then she helps me...": Relationships of trust and mediation

Working draft

John Coldron
School of Education, Sheffield Hallam University, email:

 Mike Coldwell, Angela Logie, Hilary Povey, Martha Radice & Kathy Stephenson

Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association, University of Exeter, England, 12-14 September 2002


The development of supportive relationships between individual young people attending secondary school and significant adults there is important in a variety of ways. In this paper, we report what young people and, in some cases, their parents had to say about such relationships.

Interviews were conducted as part of the evaluation of an intervention project, funded by the Home Office, intended to reduce truancy, school exclusions, bullying and offending behaviour. The schools chose to employ a wide range of strategies but a common theme to emerge was the positive effect of key relationships with 'friendly adults'. They might be with teachers, social workers, youth workers, police officers or a range of other professionals employed in the interventions.

We highlight two of the positive effects promoted by the trust and attachment generated and examine them in order to consider why the relationships are so important and how they relate to the project's aim of reducing unwanted behaviour. We conclude by considering implications for practice.


Forty-nine secondary school students, and the parents of thirteen of them, were interviewed between February and October 2001, as part of the evaluation of a programme funded by the Home Office1. Participating schools and local education authorities were funded to make interventions aimed at reducing truancy, school exclusions, bullying and offending behaviour. The interviews with young people usually took between 20 and 40 minutes, while parental interviews took around 40 minutes to an hour. Most of the young people and some of the parents were interviewed on two occasions.

The sample of 49 young people was drawn from 21 different schools. The characteristics of the sample in terms of gender and age group in school are shown in table 1.

Table 1: Characteristics of the sample: gender and year group2







Left school

Not known





























The young people we interviewed were involved with the projects for a variety of reasons. The majority of them (32) had been referred to the CRISS projects because they were at risk of exclusion from school, due to behaviour deemed unacceptable. Eight, including two young people targeted because they were looked after, were receiving support from the projects for reasons of 'vulnerability' - they were being bullied at school and/or had difficult family lives. Five interviewees (all from one project) were referred because they were known already to be involved in offending behaviour. Finally, four of the pupils interviewed for the case studies were peer counsellors or peer mentors. Their narratives were quite distinct from those of other young interviewees, and were not relevant to the concerns of this paper.

A common theme to emerge from the remaining 44 case study interviews was the positive effect for the young people and their parents of relationships with specific staff within the school. Even when projects had not had an explicit intention to foster such relationships, this was often a significant effect.

Where, when, how and with whom these positive relationships were forged varied from project to project. The adults were most often youth workers or teachers in the role of CRISS project staff, but it was also social workers, police officers and other professionals employed or involved in the interventions. The practical interventions that facilitated the forming of these relationships were various and included:

Such relationships were important in a variety of ways for pupils, parents and teachers. In this paper we concentrate on two features we consider to be particularly significant. The first feature is the way in which what we call key relationships provided a safe emotional, social and educational space for the young people. The second is how key relationships facilitated mediation and advocacy between the student, their parents and school staff.

We draw on our analysis of the interviews with the young people themselves, with some of their parents, and occasionally with the project workers and teachers. Pseudonyms are of course used throughout.

A safe social, emotional and educational space

The young people we interviewed vividly described the distinctive nature of the relationships with project workers. They were seen as different from other adults in their school because they listened to the problems young people brought to them and they could be trusted with confidences. Matthew liked the teacher who ran his in-school support centre "because you can talk to her and say you've got problems and you know you can trust her". Shaun said he could talk with his project's youth worker about "anything. Like what's been going on and who's been annoying me and stuff like that." Beth would go on a daily basis (both arranged and ad hoc) to speak to project staff at her school - to "let off steam" as one staff member described it - often about her relationships with her peers, and/or events at home which she was finding upsetting. She herself identified one of the project staff, Molly, as a confidante.

... say you've got problems at home and you can't talk to anyone else, she calls you and you go talk to her about them. And it's in ... confidence, she wouldn't say anything to anyone unless it's really ... unless it needs to be. (Beth)

The key relationship, in effect, provided a safe 'space' where they knew they could gain help. Some spontaneously likened project workers to a 'second mother,' evidently feeling that they had their welfare at heart. Importantly this was a basis for adults 'getting through' and the beginning of an effective dialogue.

The only person I listen to is Penny [the project worker]....Penny talks to me and the teachers shout at me. My mum does exactly the same. She shouts instead of talking to me. I might listen. But if they shout at me, then I won't.

A recurring theme was the contrast between the noise and disorder of the mainstream classroom and the calm, quiet atmosphere of the in-school centre where people did not shout at each other.

Well there's never, there was never any fighting or arguing or anything in [centre] classes, no bad language or anything which people do in ordinary classes. [...] And in the centre all the people would work together.

The emotional craving for a calm safe place on the part of a number of the interviewees is understandable when relationships with peers at school and elsewhere were often tumultuous and interactions with some teachers confrontational. Jane characterised her experience of school thus:

I couldn't cope with school. 'Cause they do loads of hard work and I couldn't keep up because I was off most of the time... into trouble... there's loads of kids in a class. They all mess around and none of them want to do the work and all I wanted to do was me work. But I just wanted to be left alone...

The young people's feelings and general relation to learning was an important theme to arise out of the interviews. School has education and learning as its central mission. This mission patterns the social relationships between peers and staff through structures and expectations. It provides a means of ranking pupils in relation to each other or, to put it another way, imposes educationally specific ways of gaining respect from teachers and peers. It would be surprising therefore if our interviewee's relation to learning is not a significant aspect of their troubles with peers and adults in school. Positive change in that aspect could, therefore, be supposed to help.

The following constructed scenario illustrates (albeit too simplistically) how the mission of school seemed to be implicated in producing exclusion. A below average performance in schoolwork (often established in the primary school but mitigated by the key relationship of the primary class-teacher system) is translated into low status with peers and teachers. This is reinforced by the ways in which children are ranked symbolically through test results and structurally in sets or streams. School then becomes a place where it is hard to maintain a positive self-image and therefore is not emotionally or socially safe. Attempting to gain some alternative status can lead to friction with the core educational mission of the school and with peers because it means adopting identities at odds with school expectations, or leads to behaviour that is deemed unwelcome or inappropriate by peers. Both of these routes can lead to confrontations. Joining others who feel the same way - in what can be seen as a way of gaining mutual support and creating a safer space - is seen as getting into 'bad company'. These things together increase the chances of exclusion from peer groups and/or self-exclusion from school (truanting) and/or formal exclusion.

If there is some truth in this scenario, then it is understandable that many of the interviewees felt positive about the educational benefits offered by the key relationships (and particularly those in in-school centres) and were keen to do well in their schoolwork when they were thus supported.

It was not just the in-school centres that provided a safe place. Project rooms with project staff functioned as places where young people could go if they needed to extricate themselves from worsening situations in the classroom from time to time. They could calm down, avoid trouble and regain control of and for themselves.

If I get sent out of the lesson, when I've been naughty or some'ing. I just come down here an' Pippa or Mr Randall asks what's the matter with us an' I tell 'em an' it's like they let us stay down 'ere until I calm down.

Patrick had a letter in the back of his homework diary saying that he could go to the in-school centre to work whenever he needed to. He reported that he took advantage of this (in a positive sense) when he was in a bad mood from a previous lesson and knew that he would get into trouble if he stayed in the next one.

Key relationships also offered a safe social space where the normal institutional boundaries could be safely transgressed, without fear of punishment. Matthew's mother said that while her son did sometimes still "flip" in school, "ranting" to someone was part of how he was learning to handle himself better and control his reactions:

...he'll go find [one of three project staff] and... he'll just go and swear at them! But he gets it out of his system without attacking the child and without getting into proper trouble, it's just his outlet....
(Matthew's mother)

In this way key relationships made possible an alternative to extended confrontation and a downward spiral leading to truancy or exclusion.

A place or relationship is not safe emotionally or socially if your positive sense of self and social standing is threatened, if you do not feel respected. These young people's voices constantly remind us of the importance they place on being respected (cf. Cullingford, 1999; Munn et al, 2000; Pomeroy 2000). There is evidence in many of these accounts of young people kicking against the teachers in response to the ways the teachers spoke and acted towards them.

Z: I just used to get angry. I'd shout at them, [you know] 'Just talk politely!'

INT: Oh, you used to shout at your teachers? Why did you used to get angry at them?

Z: They used to just shout at me so I'd just shout back at them.

The young people said they responded much better to the project workers who spoke to them calmly but firmly and listened to their side of things. They did not advocate anarchy - far from it. The majority of them believed in the need for rules and regulations, provided they were combined with mutually respectful, comfortable relationships. The following extracts from Graham and Jane illustrate this theme.

INT: What is it that makes a difference between some of your teachers that are all right and others that are not all right?

G: Respect, I think.

INT: Respect. In what way? Do you want to just tell me a bit about that?

G: Well, they like respect you and then you just like give them a little bit back. Whereas there's others who just say, 'Oh, do this, do that.'

If people started treating me the way they wanna be treated. I mean like if they give me respect and I give them respect and if they don't, then I don't. So it's give and take.

The attention, resources and respect characteristic of a key relationship with a friendly adult had various effects on pupils' experience of school life. They provided extra encouragement, which was taken to heart.

[The school policeman] took me out my lesson 'cos he wanted to talk to me 'cos he'd been saying that I'd not been doing as well as I could do at school at my lessons, but if I do better.... He said, 'You always get rewarded in the end for all your hard effort.' So he encouraged me.

They helped make school more attractive, by finding out and developing pupils' interests. Pippa involved Andrew in projects such as the school garden and painting wall murals

A: [...] An' Pippa, she's helped me a lot because I didn't used to come to school. 'Cos she's like got us into doin' stuff and helping the community an' I've done a beach clean up and I'm doin' a garden for the school an' fund raising for disabled people. It makes us feel more interest to go to school.

The themes of respect, a safe space, extra resources and the sense that someone was attending to them and the effect this has on their relationship with school can be heard in the following extract from Matthew's interview. Our researcher asked Matthew if he had been playing truant recently, and he replied that he had not:

M: ....some people .... do it every day. But like for me, it's worth coming into school isn't it, if you think about it.

Int: Why is that?

M: It just is. Because I know I've got someone there for me. There should be more of these sort of units in this town. A lot of people would benefit from them...It's kept me on the straight and narrow. They're always there to help me.

These key relationships kept pupils in school who would otherwise have walked out - or not even arrived - effectively excluding themselves.

In using the phrase a safe space we have tried to capture an important element in what these young people said to us about their experience of school and of the CRISS projects. In one sense the safe place is a real haven of calm, quiet and order set against a normal experience of classroom and playground characterised by noise, interference, busyness and disorder. The young people very much appreciated the former as positive aspects of, for example, in-school centres where the extra resources of staff time given to a small number made possible a very different environment to the mainstream classroom. But they also meant it metaphorically. They wanted to get away from the social noise and interference of having to manage peer interactions and relations with the teacher and they wanted to rest themselves from their emotional disorder whether in response to school or home or peers. The safe space here was not a real location but the social and personal space of a key relationship, a space made possible by mutual trust and respect.

Further, there is a danger, by identifying the need for a social and emotional safe place, that some may misinterpret this as an implicit deficit model assuming that the 'problem' lies with the individual young person. This is not what we are saying, but nor are we saying it is nothing to do with the individual and all to do with institutions and other people. It is of course more complex than that. However we would point out that the understandable lack of the sense of safety is largely an institutional artefact - the physical disorder and environmental noise of an institution where over a 1000 people are required to be housed, herded, and controlled each day; the need to engage with peers at close quarters over a considerable period of time in the course of intensive and often stressful tasks; the need to relate to authority figures in circumstances where the room for accommodation and compromise on either side is severely restricted - these are problems that necessarily accompany schooling as presently constituted. And there is no doubt that these things for some people, at certain times and for a variety of reasons, cause considerable difficulty. It was by modifying the normal school fare that successes were achieved - different relationships to staff, more staff help with work, fewer peer interactions, more time and opportunity to get a full picture of any problems.

The provision of advocacy and mediation

One of the reasons identified by these young people in explanation of their positive response to individual project workers was the way in which those staff listened and then acted as mediators between the pupils or as advocates to other members of school staff, thereby giving the pupil a voice and room for manoeuvre. Extracts from interviews with Emily, Charlie and Kirsty illustrate the theme of advocacy.

We just talk things through and then she helps me and goes and sees the teachers and makes me say sorry and that, and then I'm all alright.

We both sat together and like Ms Collins said 'Which lessons do you have trouble in most and which lessons do you like?' And she said well the lessons I like she'd try and get me into them lessons, and the lessons what I was having trouble in, try and keep me in the centre for them ... which [worked out right]. (Kirsty)

...all the other teachers always say, 'Oh, well you must have been doing something wrong.' But she just says, 'Oh right, well I'll try and sort it out for you and you can stay with me until break if you want.'

'Sorting it out' is an expression that has great currency in schools amongst both pupils and teachers. Our evidence leads us to suppose that in many cases, it referred to key adults acting as an advocate for the pupil with teachers, and finding out if anything structurally or procedurally could be changed to support them. Such advocacy helped the young people, but it also helped those teachers who may have had difficult and unpleasant experiences with the pupil to cope with their own emotions (see McLaughlin, 2000 for the need for this).

Mr Edwards had to sit in Science with me, because the teacher said she didn't want me in Science no more, so Mr Edwards said, 'Well I'll be his supporter and sit next to him, in Science.'

Importantly such advocacy could change other staff members' perspectives on the pupil's behaviour by explaining his or her circumstances, or by setting it in a general context of improvement. Elizabeth recalled a time when the manager of the in-school support centre had acted as advocate on her behalf with the head teacher, Mr Black, which reportedly prevented her from being excluded.

She just helps 'cause like, one time I got sent out of music and got sent to Mr Black and she helped me there. 'Cause...I went to her and said 'Will you take me down to Mr Black?' 'cause he was gonna throw me out of school. This was about two [months] ago, and he would have threw me out 'cause I got thrown out of me lesson. And she come down and shown him all me red slips, how good I'd been doin' and he said, 'Only for that you would have been [thrown out].'

Such mediation by individuals made it more possible for the school to find and accept ways of dealing with a problem other than escalation leading to exclusion (cf. Vulliamy and Webb, 2001a). Mr Black himself acknowledged that it is a wider perspective which assists him in making decisions, and that such advocacy is an important support for pupils like Elizabeth. It can also be vital in more formal situations. For example in one case project workers found that Matthew had not had a PSP (Pastoral Support Programme) meeting in his first two years at the school and intervened in the school system to obtain one. One member of staff (Penny) then told us how she had helped him through the meeting with his parents and pastoral staff:

Before he had it I sat down and said, 'Now what do you want to say?' So everything was written down. When we got in the meeting they said [to Matthew], 'Is there anything you want to say?' And he just sat there. And it was, 'Oh right.' And I said, 'No. This is what he wants to say.' So there's that role there.. And it's just someone there to support them... there's no way he would have said anything because he hasn't got the confidence.
(Penny, project worker)

By explicitly demonstrating faith in the pupils in such ways, the project workers could be instrumental in transforming relationships in the school. The perceived and felt changes in young people's relationships with teachers reiterate the key theme of respect and the capacity to contest negative identities.

Well, usually it's like, 'Sit over there, do that,' but now it's, 'Can you sit over there please, Damien? [Are you ready] to do this?'

I didn't really realise till I got his report on Friday that how much the teachers respect him now. They didn't have no respect for him before, it was just like he's not gonna succeed, he's a failure type of thing.
(Barry's mother)

This mediation and advocacy can be seen as constructing alternative institutional narratives that changed the meaning of behaviour and made possible more constructive responses. These key relationships also helped the pupils to construct new narratives to explain their previous behaviour to themselves (cf. the successful interventions researched by Hallam, 2000). Effective help was a matter of cognitive change (reconceptualising their relations and actions), emotional management (developing new habits of response), and the development of trust. Identities became challengeable and revisable (cf. Quicke and Winter, 1994) and pupils could consider taking up a different position, more in harmony with their school. Friendly adults helped to reassess difficult situations and find alternative, effective ways of responding. The agency of the pupils in deciding how to change was engaged (cf. Munn et al, 2000).

For example, with the help of the school inclusion manager, Damien had been able to identify how minor incidents escalate into major ones:

Mr Edwards calls it snowballs, beware of snowballs. And that means, like, because like if I've got no tie on first thing in the morning, and the teacher says to me, 'Why have you not got your tie on?' and then it builds up bigger, because when I'm like in a mood now because the teacher's just been shouting at me, well, I like go to a lesson and teacher says, 'right, take your coat off,' and I say 'No' and all that, and eventually it gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and then at that time I get suspended. All because I've not had a tie on.

Sometimes it was simply a matter of re-framing events in a more positive light. For example, the in-school centre manager made Matthew feel more optimistic about school:

She'd say, 'Well, he's had a really crap day, but we're going to have a good day tomorrow, aren't we Matthew?" and he'd say, 'Yeah miss, yeah.' He'd be up instead of down about it which I thought was nice. Instead of me saying, 'Oh, what have you done now?' he got the, 'Oh well it's another day tomorrow, and we'll try again.' So it's totally opposite to what he was getting when he first went to that school, total opposite. [...] so he thinks, 'Well I can cope with this, just leave it and I'll walk away, and if I have got a problem and me mum's not there or Mrs Leach is not there, then there's Mr Barnes or there's Miss Clegg or there's Ms Jackson or you know, or I could even go to the ordinary teacher.' (Matthew's mother)

Thus, the young people were better resourced to take charge of their lives.

Mediation and home-school relationships

Co-operation between school and home is recognised as playing an important part in tackling problems in school, including those of truancy, bullying, exclusion and offending behaviour (see, for example, Audit Commission, 1996; Graham and Bowling, 1995; Hallam, 2000; Munn et al, 2000; Vulliamy and Webb, 2001a). The positive relationships with project workers greatly facilitated this co-operation, providing a point of communication for parents that was often felt to be much needed.

The parents we interviewed often described their frustration at not being able to meet teachers or get them to listen to them about their children, and they talked with enthusiasm about how a key relationship with a project worker gave them a sense of being listened to, thereby building trust between parent and school. They were reassured because there was someone in the school who knew their child and her or his circumstances and could act as mediator or advocate for both child and parent.

For example, Beth's mother used to feel powerless to persuade her daughter to attend school (Beth refused to go because of bullying). She described receiving little support or communication from staff, apart from phone calls checking whether she knew Beth was not at school. She felt that she was given an unhelpful reception when she went into school, once waiting 45 minutes for a five-minute audience with the head teacher. Both Beth and her mother thought that home-school communication had improved with the intervention and support from one member of project staff. Having a reliable source and channel of information within the school seemed to have erased the mother's sense of being left in the dark, and she felt confident that the project worker would be capable of resolving any issues that arose for her daughter.

When I go into the office [...] I usually say, 'I want to see Molly [the project worker] please', and I do get seen. Molly does come to see me. But before that it was you just sat there and nobody would come out. 'Oh so and so's busy. We'll try and get so and so.' And it's like, well, hang on a minute. You want somebody that knows my son or daughter and knows the problem. So it is working now Molly is there because at least, not just because I know her, but because she is there to sort it out and you can just say I want to speak to Molly and it does get sorted.
(Beth's mother)

Similarly, Matthew's mother recalled that she "had a permanent chair in school", so often was she called in to respond to her son's behaviour. Usually this was when he was already at the exclusion stage, by which time it was too late. She was delighted when she began to receive calls from the centre manager praising Matthew's behaviour (something that staff in other projects also tried to do). She was keen to voice her support of the centre manager: "I think she's great, me, she wants a medal, a million pound a year!"3

Fractured and negative home-school relationships were transformed through such kinds of mediation by a key individual making it possible for more effective partnerships based on greater consensus between home and school to be created.

Some notes on transition and continuity

It is clear that for the young people we interviewed, who face challenges at school that put them at risk of exclusion, truancy and bullying, there were many benefits to having a 'friendly adult' in school with whom they could establish a positive relationship. There is some evidence that this person can help fill the void in personalised contact that is apparently felt by some pupils (and parents) following transition from primary to secondary school. Some pupils experienced this period as quite confusing and disruptive, and linked it directly to getting into trouble (cf. Lyon et al, 2000; Gordon, 2001).

INT: What was your primary school like?

D: I didn't get in trouble there once.

INT: You didn't?

D: And I got all the top marks in the tests over there. I never had no trouble then but when I came here in the first year, it just kicked off.

INT: What happened then, what changed?

D: Don't know, it's just when you get here isn't it, it's a bigger school. And you stay with like one teacher all time when you're in primary school, just one teacher like, Geography you have [the same] teacher, Maths you have [the same] teacher, and here you have like different teachers for different lessons. [...] And you don't get suspended in primary school. Or get sent home. (Damien)

In-school centres were compared to primary school, in a positive way:

It was good actually. 'Cos like it was different because the lessons was all in one room like in primary school.

Some young people perhaps need more care or stability than they currently get in personal relationships at secondary school. Indeed, Vulliamy and Webb (2000) point to early research into the importance of the role of the group or form tutor in schools that successfully reduce exclusions. Access to the 'safe' emotional, social and educational space of a key positive relationship is particularly important for vulnerable young people, given the transitory and provisional nature of their relationships with institutional agents (Stanton-Salazar, 1997):

There's nothing in this whole thing with Matthew that's consistent, nothing. Apart from his behaviour. School's not consistent, psychiatrist's not consistent, the appointments aren't consistent, it's been really annoying. And the only thing that he really wanted to do was to have somebody to go through with him all the way.
(Matthew's mother)

Despite the clear benefits of the positive relationships formed in these projects, in some cases, they were not sustained. The short-term nature of the funding coupled with a lack of systematic support to help schools' develop exit strategies meant that several projects ended abruptly or could only continue in much reduced form. When the funding for the support centre at Matthew's school ended and the manager retired, leaving a 'skeleton' service in the hands of a teaching assistant, Matthew reportedly said that he would never return to school. It was only because the centre manager was willing to overstep the normal bounds of their relationship, meeting with him at home during school holidays and explaining what support he would still have, that his progress was not de-railed.

Shaun was not so lucky when his project worker found more secure employment, some weeks before the end of her contract.

I just used to go see Penny and she'd sort it all out. But after that, there's no-one else for to go to because no other teacher listens.

Shaun's mother had noted how his fixed-term exclusions had "shot up" subsequent to the sudden withdrawal of support. Had Penny stayed working in the school, Shaun might have begun to learn how to deal better with emotions such as anger and frustration that are a block to a smooth school experience. He might have learnt how to understand and accept the consequences of his actions, or at least how to explain himself in terms that conform to the school's expectations.

Implications for practice

As we hope we have shown the opportunity for 'at risk' young people and their parents to establish a key relationship provided extra support to help students manage their relationships with teachers and peers. This commonly gave pupils a sense of being listened to, which could lead to mediation and advocacy on their behalf with other members of the school community. They helped to equip pupils in managing and re-negotiating their identity in school. They also provided a trusted point of contact and, again, potential advocacy for parents.

Our findings point to several implications for practice. While many schools strove for respectful relationships, the institution of school as it currently stands - comprising, for instance, compulsory attendance, legal responsibility, the imperative of control, a largely transmissive pedagogy, success defined in terms of targets and narrowly defined attainment - puts considerable barriers in the way of what is already a difficult task. But the 'costs' to young people and schools of exclusions, bullying, truancy, and the disaffection that feeds into and off these are steep. The risks include: low self-esteem; greater potential of involvement in crime; time- and morale-consuming management of the issues by school and parents; and disruption of the efficient and effective provision of - and entitlement to - education for many young people in considerable need.

Priority should therefore be given to enabling such relationships to be established. We observe with interest the unfolding of the Connexions programme of personal advisers in schools, which may have great potential to provide the contact with 'friendly adults' that vulnerable young people seem to value so highly. However, we are wary of the risk that personal advisers will be charged with caseloads too heavy to be effective in this way4. They are also aimed mainly at those aged 14 and older. Where it is the case that things begin to go wrong from the beginning of secondary school, then it may be too late in these cases.

In-school student support centres most often generated the conditions that fostered such relationships. There were other means. For example, several projects employed a youth worker who had a base in school and worked with pupils on behavioural issues on a regular timetable, while other teachers concentrated on learning support. In our view, the employment of non-teaching professionals in schools in a wide variety of roles is to be encouraged. Of key importance is that these professionals are, and are seen to be, part of the school community by teachers, pupils and other staff.

However there is a difficulty for personal advisers and other non-teaching professionals in negotiating their role. Schools are places with traditionally patterned roles, for example, teacher, pupil and head teacher. These are understood to a greater or lesser extent by those involved. The new roles created within projects do not fit into this mould. They can as a consequence be lonely and isolating, caught between pupils on the one hand and teachers on the other. We found that even teachers in these new roles were excluded from staffrooms or downgraded in the decision making process and hierarchy of the school. The personal experience of these roles is like walking a tightrope, and some form of safety net is vital. There is therefore much work to be done to ensure there are support structures within and beyond the schools whether this be through networks of youth workers, or supportive line managers or some other means.

Here we wish to point to a tension at the heart of the relationship and exemplified by the role mismatch. Our analysis and interpretation points to the fact that young people find a safe space within key relationships partly because of the mismatch between the project workers approach. We mean by 'approach here something like Bourdieu's concept of habitus (Bourdieu 1992) which is an inclusive conception of social practice and as such captures the interpersonal, conceptual and organisational aspects of what these workers did. The mismatch is between the role habitus of the project workers and the institutional habitus expressed through the social practice of those assigned to different institutional roles. The institutional habitus is expressed through, for example, the hierarchical distinctions, assigned responsibilities, conceptual and affective resources used to justify actions; through the organisation of physical space and time determining who is allowed to be where, when and for what purpose; through regulation of personal interaction determining what language can be used in what register in what places and between which people. As we have seen it was because the young people were able to transgress the implicit and sometimes explicit rules that constituted the insitutional habitus that that they were able to find a safe space.

The dissonance between project worker habitus and institutional habitus can be resolved either through adaptation by the school, by the project workers or by both. The two last may in the event have the effect of making key relationships less likely or less effective. What is clear, however, is that the presence of these professionals in these different roles is a catalyst for challenge and development.

These young people's relationships with 'friendly adults' were clearly beneficial in and of themselves. However, the provision of a safe, stress-free place to be was also a crucial element of some projects' success. The 'safe spaces' are somewhere to go and calm down, have a cup of tea and a biscuit (freedom to drink and eat being a frequent and comforting feature of them), and talk about what has been happening. But there is a danger that if the benefits do not spread beyond this space, nothing much will change for the pupil in his or her mainstream school experience. More 'structural' change beyond the 'safe space' was particularly crucial given the short-term funding of these projects and the consequent high turnover in project staff. The general quality of relationships in school, and the identification of the structural features that can contribute to or diminish such relationships, is important. Schools should invest in attempts to establish more respectful, trusting relationships with all students including those most at risk.

The key relationships that we have described did not work without other interventions. Often specialist teaching or alternative curricula were also needed. But these relationships can be instrumental in institutional change and in enabling young people to become more confident and more able to deal with school, and to find themselves a safe enough space in school where there was not one before.


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1. The Home Office is the United Kingdom government department charged with crime reduction.

2. Y7 = 11 to 12 years, Y8 = 12 to 13 years and so on.

3. It is important to note that not all parents fully embraced their child's participation in the project. While Andrew held the view that the project work had made a difference to his attitudes to school and attendance, his parents were more sceptical of the interventions, displaying understandable concern about Andrew's academic work: "Personally, I'd prefer him to be in his lessons and learning because I want to see him get something good at the end of it" (Andrew's mother). However, they understood how the project staff's support could work towards that end, too:

Well, maybe because he hasn't had very good rapports with teachers, any form of teacher. Maybe it has helped because he does, when he gets into lessons, he does knuckle down as such really. (Andrew's stepfather)

4. Evaluations of the pilot Connexions projects have yet to be disseminated.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 23 January 2003