A teacher with students

Releasing Potential

Releasing Potential: An Alternative Education that Banks Compassion

Between 2001 and 2016, Releasing Potential operated as an educational charity and outreach service offering alternative education packages to schools and Local Authorities responsible for students who had been excluded-or were in danger of being excluded-from mainstream school. The model was relatively simple. We offered outdoor education to children who were, for a range of complicated reasons, dis-applied from the National Curriculum and unlikely to achieve either GCSE qualifications or the social-emotional resilience required to succeed in life beyond school. In 2016, against the backdrop of increased demands on alternative providers, we took the difficult decision to become an Independent School and registered with the Department for Education; we received our DfE registration inspection in 2017 followed by a full OFSTED inspection in May 2018.

Releasing Potential is now a school with places for up to fifty students with Special Educational Needs. Student places are largely funded by Local Authorities according to the particular needs of the child and our ability to put in place a bespoke programme of learning that will allow them to thrive. Each of our students has an Educational Health Care Plan (EHCP) and have struggled in mainstream school. Students at Releasing Potential School are either severely emotionally vulnerable or have very challenging behaviour. Some students have moderate learning difficulties and many are Looked-After Children. Many have chaotic home lives; almost all are victims of Child Sexual Exploitation or are at high risk. Despite the challenges faced by our students and the many difficulties posed by working with the most marginalised young people we have developed a successful needs-based model of alternative education that has both yielded excellent outcomes and passed muster with OFSTED.

Our philosophical approach is encapsulated in the notion of "banking compassion," a term used primarily in work with sexually exploited young people. Put simply, banking compassion is about making an investment in the young person even when they may be unable to do so themselves. It's about understanding that we may need to stake time, energy and care, with the distinct possibility that we will never see a return. So, when we text a student who has become disengaged with school to tell them, "I'll be at Macdonald's at 10am every Wednesday morning if you need to talk" it is with the understanding that one day they may just turn up; we give them the freedom to make their own decision in the hope they'll return our investment, even though we know that they may not.

The work of Releasing Potential School is underpinned by William Glasser's 'Choice Theory', which emerged as a model for understanding human relationships out of Glasser's research and practice in psychiatry between the 1970s and 1990s in the US. According to Glasser, human beings are driven by five genetic needs: love and belonging, power, freedom, fun and survival. According to Glasser, in a well-balanced and psychologically healthy human being these needs are all roughly being met by the relationships they share with others. While Glasser's conceptualisation of Choice Theory accounts for all sorts of human behaviour (including enduring mental health conditions) for us the model presents a useful way of assessing the needs of our students and finding creative ways to meet them through their interactions with learning.
As educators, we have no chance of helping young people to learn until their basic needs are met. For instance, children whose home lives make them feel powerless may try to assert control over the learning environment to meet a need - some kind of power or control. Seemingly 'bad' behaviour may manifest in physically challenging acts like throwing chairs or jumping on classroom furniture. Similarly, for students whose chaotic lifestyles result in poor diet, sometimes just meeting the basic need for survival by building tea and toast into the school morning can overcome major barriers to learning. At Releasing Potential School, our imperative is to understand what each child needs to be able to feel powerful and in control, safe, engaged in fun, and to have freedom to learn in the best way they can. We have a responsibility as educators to ensure that we can provide this for each student without affecting the experience of any other student or member of staff - a tall order, but one we are committed to achieving in every interaction with our students.

Releasing Potential's alternative curriculum is built around five core subjects (Outdoor Education, Maths, English, PSD and Food Studies) and is designed to look and feel as little like a typical programme of study as possible. The student timetable is driven by the activities that students most enjoy. Although most students (particularly those able to access small group learning) engage with all five core subjects, students are given the freedom to choose how they study and staff are tasked with creating innovative ways of ensuring that functional skills like English and Maths are embedded in their learning. This is no easy task, given the varying degrees of engagement our students are able to muster and the various needs we need to consider. The implementation of a traditional curriculum was never imposed on us since our students are dis-applied from the National Curriculum. Those who choose to and are capable can take GCSEs (and some do) but academic success that relies on testing is only a small part of the picture of what we offer.

For us, the challenge has always been how to deliver a bespoke curriculum that pushes young people to be the very best versions of themselves without exacerbating their anxieties about learning or their suspicions and negative expectations of educators. While the ability to work flexibly to our curriculum is a big part of that, more important is our approach to creating healthy relationships with and between our students. At the heart of Glasser's Choice Theory is the basic assumption that people are good, and that, given the opportunity to have their needs met, they can thrive in relationships and overcome almost anything. We've certainly seen evidence of this in our school, particularly when adults find ways of ensuring the basic principles of freedom and choice underpin their work with young people. By doing so, we can allow students to take control of their own destiny while respecting the freedom and choices of those around them.

 

A teacher with students

 

We are proud of how far we've come, and that we are able to offer something truly different for some of the hardest to reach young people. We hope that our work marks a turning point for alternative providers, and demonstrates that while providing a more democratic and 'free' education within the strict confines of the UK system is a challenge, it is not an insurmountable one.

Dr Alex Gray
Releasing Potential Institute

 

 

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