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The Munch Poke Ping report: Why we need to help excluded young people stay safe online

Stephen Carrick-Davies

online 300x225 The Munch Poke Ping report: Why we need to help excluded young people stay safe online

(GETTY IMAGES)

Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) provide education for children who cannot go to mainstream school. Supporting excluded young people in PRUs can be challenging, especially when it comes to the use and misuse of social media. Stephen Carrick-Davies, author of the ‘Munch Poke Ping’ report shares what mainstream schools can learn from the work being done in PRUs.

So let’s get the context bit out of the way. Currently there are an estimated 37,000 pupils being taught by alternative education providers such as PRUs. Many of these children lack supportive adults in their lives, come from homes which could be described as ‘chaotic’, and may have experienced severe anxiety and depression as well as other mental health and/or medical needs. In addition some will be pregnant, school-aged mothers and fathers, school refusers or phobics. If you had to make a guess as to the percentage of children in PRUs who had some form of Special Educational Needs (SEN), what would it be? The first statistical release for children with SEN stated that in fact 79 per cent of these pupils in PRUs have a SEN.

It’s true that many have been excluded from mainstream school because of challenging behaviour, but we know that kind of behaviour can be a complex front to hide deep hurt, anger or abuse. Those who are quick to judge this behaviour may label these pupils as ‘trouble’ but given what so many have had to endure at a tender age perhaps ‘troubled’ is a better term.

So that’s the “I thought as much” bit. What you may not know is that proportionally more PRUs are rated as ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ than their mainstream school cousins. Where there is effective practice, PRUs are doing an extraordinary job of turning children’s lives around. For many of these pupils, the PRU staff are their last real advocates before they leave the education system and fend for themselves, often in the growing city of NEETs. But that’s another story.

However, there is of course another ‘system’ within which all children have to largely fend for themselves, that of the Internet – or as I call it in the Munch Poke Ping report, an ‘Incubator’; a space where things which are ‘munched’ or captured are then uploaded, to grow, be commented upon, added to, forwarded, possibly morphed or just lie dormant, before being re-‘hatched’, amplified, re-broadcasted or shared to a watching world. A disparaging description maybe, but one which resonated with many of the young people I have worked with from PRUs, many of whom live on the fringes of the online world as well as the offline.

Given that many young people live a growing percentage of their lives online, I wanted to know what the key E-safety issues were for these young people, and whether staff in PRUs felt suitably equipped to support them in this ever-changing environment.

After a decade of E-safety work in UK schools, the evidence suggests that most young people who are supported by parents and educated by teachers, know the key E-safety issues and are able to stay safe online. What, I wondered, was it like if you were missing out on these lessons, had no internet at home, and a lack of supportive adults in your life? So began a two-year collaborative learning project called ‘Munch Poke Ping’ funded originally by the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) and now by social investor Nominet Trust.

Working directly with young people and staff from eight PRUs, I have reviewed how the staff deal with children’s use and misuse of social media. The MPP report described the way many young people in PRUs were living on the fringes of the ‘online world’ and that many staff needed practical, hands on training to keep up to date and understand how best to protect, support but also empower these students to use the new tools positively and responsibly. The speed at which new tools and platforms are being introduced and the way young people as early adopters often use and misuse these tools is phenomenal.

What has made this project particularly unique is through film-making both students and staff were able to share their stories and their experiences of use and misuse. Many staff recognised that it was becoming almost impossible to simply ban phones from their premises – even with metal detectors!

What was more important was to invest in educating and equipping pupils, especially in the area of helping them to build greater empathy and resilience, and to prioritise effective engagement with parents. This takes time and resources but in many PRUs it is working. Provisions like the Parkside PRU in Ipswich can only do what they do because, as the head teacher told me, “we don’t have a culture of panic here!”

It’s easy for those in mainstream schools to see PRUs as the ‘Cinderella of the education system’ and those working in PRUs are used to hearing the comment “I could never do what you do!”. Maybe we can’t, but we can learn from what they are doing to provide holistic support and care for vulnerable, excluded students, offline and online.

Stephen Carrick-Davies’ project ‘Munch Poke Ping’ has been funded by Nominet Trust and looks at the use and misuse of social media with vulnerable and excluded young people.

Seamus Oates is just one of a number of speakers at the Munch Poke Ping conference on the 19th November 2012 in London.

For more information visit www.munchpokeping.com

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