How Leyton Sixth Form are changing their culture to tackle peer-on-peer harassment

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As part of our research into the experiences of student learners in 16+ education concerning harassment and discrimination we spoke with Gill Burbridge, Principal of Leyton Sixth Form College.

The majority of students progress to Higher Education institutions of some kind; be that universities or other HE providers such as drama schools, art colleges and conservatories, or to increasingly popular apprenticeship routes and other school leaver programmes.

How are you trying to change your culture?

What we fundamentally want to achieve is for our staff and our students to feel safe, valued, included, and we want them to achieve whatever that achievement looks like.

We have quite traditional methods of engaging our students in the issues that matter to them, and we do lots of student voice activity through our pastoral systems. We also have less common channels to engage students; student led ‘get it off your chest’ sessions, ‘pop-up’ feedback desk in communal areas, as a senior leadership team we meet with groups of students throughout the year. We of course have a student council, we have tutor group reps and so on.

How do you engage your students in this work?

It’s partly self selection.

We have lots of different forums and ways in which people can share their experiences, their issues, or their ideas, but making sure initially you’ve got a really broad approach to listening is key.

If you think about student representation, it’s often those who are the most confident, the most articulate, who are perhaps on level three courses, often high achievers, who have a sense of confidence in their own ideas. They’re the ones that often will engage with those issues.

We find that the voices that come through our channels are often not the expected voices, and that’s really important.

What helps is making sure that we’re working with our teams that support some of our more vulnerable students, or those who are at risk of being marginalised, to make sure that they have the opportunity to be part of the work as well. The more spaces you create for those conversations to take place, the more opportunity you give to make sure that those voices are coming through.

We run an informal lunch time session called ‘Get it off your chest’ where people can just go to talk about anything they want to. So there are these casual forums right the way through to the formal mechanisms for gathering those voices. You’ve got to build different platforms and different forums, because what feels comfortable to one person is not going to feel comfortable to another. It’s about putting those people who are most affected by what it is you are trying to address at the heart of the work you do so that it’s meaningful and actually providing positive action.

Also, we’re often discussing quite distressing, difficult, or traumatic experiences, which can put us at risk of causing harm. It’s got to be about building agency and optimism back into their lives because otherwise it can be harmful. We’re not therapists, and there is a danger that you’re just opening up space without doing anything. You’ve got to have the capacity to support young people as well as learn from them.

How do you resource your work?

“It’s not that there is real additional resource that I can bring in, it’s about using what we’ve got really wisely to achieve our core purpose.”

Sometimes we are able to access additional funding for particular work streams, but a lot of the time it is just about moving the pieces around, depending on what your priorities are as an organisation.

At our whole staff conference I was using the Arthur Ashe quote “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” It’s an ongoing process, we’re always looking at where we are right now, where we need to be, and what we have at our disposal. Then, what can we do with that?

I did a restructuring of our resource when I first became principal and I created this role around Community and Culture. We’ve also created a team working around Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, and then recently, we’ve rebranded our HR and staff development work around organisational development. We’ve got a really strong learning support department who work with our level one students, but closely connected to that is our students who have significant safeguarding needs.

We also bid successfully for a social action apprentice, which we share with three other colleges. Being the lead organiser, she spends a little bit more time with us and she’s done some great work. Finally, we’ve got a youth worker that we share with our local church, which is just our next door neighbour. So I think it is about using our resources to ensure that we are alert to the depth and richness of our students.

In terms of prioritising the work, that shifts because the external context will dictate some things needing to be prioritised over others, and quite rightly.

There’s been urgent work that we needed to do around anti racism and around harassment and misogyny and gender identity. We need to respond to what’s being felt by the people within our organisation, and have an impact on their capacity to learn and study effectively or indeed, to carry out their professional roles effectively. We need to be responsive, whilst remaining true to our identity and our sense of what matters.W

What external organisations do you work with, and how do you benefit from doing this?

For the past couple of years we’ve worked with an organisation called Leaders Unlocked. They train our students in conducting research and gathering young people’s voices on topics impacting them from within our institution and beyond.

We’re currently in year 2 of a project with them looking at addressing racial injustice. This year we also started work on sexual harassment, and we have six student commissioners working on that.

This year we’re also part of a national piece of work, which is helping to connect our students with student commissioners in colleges across the country.

This is crucial because by investing in this we’re getting greater reach, and giving our students greater opportunities to have a seat around bigger tables. They have the opportunity to weigh in on national policy making and actually influence their external contexts. Because it’s absolutely right that we need to get our own house in order, but there is a limit to what you can do as a single institution.

Also, if we’re ever going to bring about real change in society, we’ve got to support our students, the changemakers in penetrating those areas within society where having their voice heard matters.

We are also members of Citizens UK, making us part of the local Waltham Forest Alliance, which is itself part of the East London Alliance. This connects us with other schools, but also faith organisations, community groups, and so on, giving us a perspective that is broader than just the confines of our institution but also very hyperlocal as well, which is really useful.

The fundamentals of that work is around community action and community organising, and all of that work starts with listening, both within our institution and then locally. To get this right, we train our students in community organising, showing them what it actually means and some of the skills and the tools it requires.

What are the core principles of the work you’re doing?

We needed a way to conceptualise the work we do, because it felt that we were doing some big and important work in overlapping but distinct areas, and I wanted a way of bringing all that work together for staff and students so that they could see it as part of one big piece of work. We’ve used the term ‘compassionate education’ as our way of doing that.

This stemmed from work we were doing with an organisation called The Difference whose main raison d’etre is around minimising school exclusion. I really needed to consider what that meant in a mainstream Sixth Form College as opposed to in an alternative provision. This led to thinking about the idea of compassion and what it means to be compassionate. Myself and around 20 staff members formed a working group to think through this concept and we came up with six core principles. These included things like ‘treating everybody with unconditional positive regard’.

The principles are very well, but what does that actually look like in practice? So we then worked through some areas of consistent practice, for example, how we communicate with one another, or having high expectations of ourselves and each other and so on.

This helped to create an understanding of what, on a day to day basis, should we all experience, or expect to see, hear. We did a lot of modelling of that, and then we did some training. We brought in some external facilitation to do some trauma informed practice training with us.

“It’s all about compassion”

What I’ve said is that if we are genuinely compassionate, then we will be anti racist, we will be inclusive. We will build agency and optimism with our students. All the things that we want to do, we will do through this framework because you can’t be inclusive unless you are being compassionate, and vice versa.

We’re definitely not there yet, but we’ve got a common language that we use. It’s really useful with students as well, to give them a vocabulary and understanding of why it matters and actually, why practising compassion is really good for our own well being.

When we started working intensively around how we challenge sexual harassment it really helped having an understanding the impact that our language and our behaviour has on other people, it’s part and parcel of that same piece of work, but it has it’s made it easier.

We do a lot of work now around scripting conversations to stop them becoming confrontational or from escalating. It’s been a really good way for people to start thinking about applying the concepts rather than just being conceptual.

What’s your approach to tackling harassment and managing student expectations?

It’s important that we model the behaviours that are positive and inclusive, while also having a process in place to manage things when people don’t conform to that. We don’t have any policy that talks about zero tolerance, and the reason for that is that I think zero tolerance can actually contradict the Equity and Inclusion agenda. Just to give you an example, often schools have a zero tolerance policy around drugs, weapons, whatever it might be, which feeds into their exclusion policy. But we know that certain groups are overrepresented in the young people that get excluded.

My view is you cannot, on the one hand, argue that you have equity within your institution, if actually you end up excluding some groups of students more than others. Often those zero tolerance policies actually fuel inequity rather than challenge it. The language can also appear confusing. On the one hand we often talk about promoting tolerance and respect and then contradict this by saying that we have a zero tolerance approach. 

It also depends on what ‘zero tolerance’ means. Does it mean we will always take action, and that we take these things seriously? Then yes, but does it mean we will always take punitive action and often that is what zero tolerance policies are about. Our job is to educate, so what I’m looking for are those teachable moments, the ability to understand why someone has said or done something, to help them to understand the impact of their actions, and to support them to avoid that in the future.

If we’re talking about harassment we have a case of a young person who has behaved inappropriately to a peer. Our priority first and foremost is the safety and well being of the ‘victim-survivor’ in that scenario. But if we just exclude without any further action then we just send the problem somewhere else. It’s no longer within our gates, but we’ve not dealt with it.

The end result might be the same, it may be that the young person cannot stay within our establishment because actually, the detrimental impact on the person that they have harmed is greater than the harm that will come to them if they’re not in the institution. That’s always a really, really difficult thing to balance. So the end result might still be that the young person has to leave our institution, but how we arrive at that needs to be through these teachable moments where this is an opportunity to support that young person in their future, even if their future lies outside of our organisation.

Any advice for other institutions?

Have structures in plan, have really clear processes. Be very open about the support that’s  available to young people and make sure that you’ve got the resource because the worst thing you can do is abandon somebody partway through.

Also be really clear about what your limitations are. Sometimes things need to be referred beyond your organisation and that’s really important to acknowledge. One of the issues of recent times is that the under-resourcing of public services has meant that a lot of things that would have sort of been taken care of beyond education institutions are just falling through big gaps. If we don’t plug the gaps, nobody will. But it does mean that people in education are being asked to respond to things that they’re not necessarily equipped to respond to. There is a training need, but actually I am always a bit wary about giving staff too much training. Because otherwise they feel qualified to deal with things that you’re still not qualified to deal with. So it’s about being equipped to hear the initial disclosure and then knowing what to do about it. It is not then always diagnosing the issue.

But more fundamentally than that, you have to make social action and social justice a part of who you are. You need to build that organically within the organisation because otherwise it does become a project or a kind of an appendage to what you’re doing. So for me, it’s about making this core to who we are and having the structures in place so that young people aren’t having to take to social media and articulate their concerns elsewhere because they know that they’ve got a mechanism within their education institution to do that.

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