Reflections on the CELCIS Annual Lecture

Last night I had the amazing good fortune to attend the annual Celcis lecture at the University of Strathclyde. 

Having produced our authority guidance on supporting Looked After Children for education settings (with support from CELCIS) three years ago, and now being in post as Principal Teacher for Looked After Children, I was very excited to hear what the messages from the evening would be. 

The speaker at the lecture was Professor of Social Work and Social Policy at Trinity College Dublin, Robbie Gilligan (for the purposes of this blog post, I am going to refer to him as Robbie from now on and I hope that will not cause offence). He was an absolutely inspirational, knowledgeable and entertaining speaker and I found myself doing imagined air punches at almost everything he said. The title of his lecture was “Powering up the potential of care experienced young people: the role of education, work and adult expectations”. In the lecture Robbie talked about many ideas that resonated with my thinking; his aim was to challenge the dominant narrative of attainment and achievement within education but also to challenge the failure narrative that all too often accompanies the experiences of our care experienced children. He talked about the idea that many young people have talents and experiences and energies that we need to tap into in order to help them achieve their potential. He spoke of the power and potential of work experience to do this and explored how we need to get away from the conventional timelines that exist and which expect young people to move through school before going into work settings. He explained that education is a lifetime project and that young people and adults must be allowed to get on and off the education bus; if they get off they must not get off in a bad mood and not feel that they won’t be welcome back. It is often true that all care experienced young people do not follow the same trajectory as other young people and that their education experience may look quite different in terms of chronology.

Robbie cited six examples of  adults (the majority of whom are care experienced) who have gone on to achieve success and celebrity after engaging in early forms of work experience as children:

Actress Saoirse Ronan; Gardener and Guardian writer Alan Jenkins; Poet and Performer Lemn Sissay; Actor Barry Keoghan; Footballer Paul McGrath; Javelin champion Fatima Whitbread and Novelist Jenni Fagan. 

All of these stories provided excellent exemplification of the idea that if a child is inspired at an early age to engage in a form of “work” that is linked to a passion or hobby then this work may well lead to a learning trajectory that is unconventional and atypical in terms of our ideas about age and stage educational experiences.

Robbie also talked about the idea that work is about more than employment and that it works much better when it is based on self identified interests and experiences. Work can inspire effort to go back into education and get back on the education bus. It can cultivate soft and hard skills, identity and agency and it can give young people an identity beyond the “children in care” bubble that they too often experience.

My heart flipped as a drama teacher and former dramatherapist when Robbie spoke of work as a “performance that matters”; I have long talked about the idea of needing to give children and young people the chance to rehearse and enact positive experience and confidence in a safe setting, supported by an adult who will allow them to make mistakes and learn; the body keeps the score and the more we rehearse confidence and success, the more it becomes real.

The recording of the lecture will be shared by CELCIS and I would strongly encourage you to watch it.

After the lecture there was a panel discussion with Joe Rankin from  Nevis Group Scotland which offers employment to care experience children, Tracy Wright who is studying law at Strathclyde and is a Celcis Board member and Rosie Moore, who sits on the Independent Care Review and is studying social work. The key messages from the panel discussion resonated with the themes of Robbie’s lecture and were about needing to think outside the box, to be proactive and positive about what young people can achieve, to be stable and supportive adults who can help care experienced young people to achieve and thrive, to have high aspirations, to recognise that achievement is about so much more than a narrow range of academic qualifications and to accept that care experienced young people may need to travel along the learning journey at a different pace to others.

I wanted to say something at the end of the discussion but the mike never got to me and in any case, I would probably not have managed to say it in the right way. 

What I have to say is not maybe worth much but I feel it very passionately after working in a range of educational and community settings throughout net career.

  1. Many of us in Scottish education are trying to change the narrative of what “attainment” and “achievement” mean. Insight and the new BGE benchmarking tool are all about this. However, some of the powers that be have to commit to genuine celebration of attainment in all forms and stop trying to measure only what is easy to measure. Head teachers need to be brave and confident here.

  1. The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence is based on a commitment to Skills for Life, Learning and Work. After nearly 10 years there is a risk that we are going to throw the baby out with the bath water and try and start again. Please let’s not. Many other nations have nothing like this:
  1. The SQA has a whole suite of work related qualifications that we just aren’t using. I know about this one because my husband wrote it:

Ollie Bray knows about a lot more:

  1. There are lots of amazing things happening in many schools in Scotland but schools can’t do it all. Partnerships with employers are key, as are community corporate parents who can open doors, provide the social capital into new worlds and not give up when young people are ready to engage yet. Family Firm is an excellent start but we need more employers like Timpsons who understand adversity and attachment and won’t give up when a young person has a bad day and will still be there the next day with a positive, loving attitude. Flexible Learning Planning allows schools to work with partners to create alternative, exciting pathways BUT sometimes the partners are hard to find or the Risk Assessment Dementors try and put up barriers. But barriers can be removed without anyone getting hurt.
  2. We need to accept that with cuts to budgets, we need to be more creative than ever to make exciting things happen. Where recent cuts mean less music tuition, fewer youth services and fewer adults per child in schools, we have to work harder to find the solutions and also to challenge if we feel that things are getting close to being too austere:

Some people believe that the parts of our services that we are having to cut such as drama, music and languages are the frills, the icing on the cake and luxuries that we can live without. But if we look back at Robbie’s six examples, maybe we need to think again. 

The future is bright for Care Experienced Young Children and Young People in Scotland if we embrace the partnership working advocated to Get It Right for Every Child, stay committed to our core values and remain optimistic, creative, realistic and caring.


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