Fifteen year old Sophie from Southwark was not an easy pupil to teach. Her attendance at school was erratic and when she did turn up she showed anger and frustration at those in authority. Like thousands of others in the UK showing similar behaviour she was on the verge of being permanently excluded and dropping out of the education system altogether. However, there was more going on than met the eye. Underneath Sophie’s destructive behaviour lay a troubled girl living in the shadow of sexual abuse and a chaotic home life. Being cut off from the stability and structure of school life would have left Sophie without purpose or direction and the sense of belonging offered by gangs would have become an attractive prospect.
Sadly Sophie’s situation is not that unique. Recent figures show that over 5,000 pupils were known to have been permanently excluded in 2010/11 with around 14,000 attending pupil referral units and a further 23,000 in other forms of alternative education. During this period, just 1.5% of PRU students achieved five good GCSEs and one-in-four students left at Key Stage 4 with no qualifications at all. It is also far more likely for a young person to be excluded when they are dealing with difficulties such as family breakdown, mental and physical health issues, addiction, poverty, as well as anti-social behaviour, crime and gangs in the surrounding area. In the face of persistent disruptive or violent behaviour, exclusion is sometimes the correct response. The stakes are far too high, however, to use it as anything other than the very last resort. When young people fall out of education they suffer enormously, but so do their families and communities. It is not surprising that areas with high levels of exclusion are also rife with unemployment, homelessness and debt.
It is absolutely key that churches are engaged with serving the poor and the marginalised outside of the church and to do that effectively we need to get to know them and offer them a place right at the heart of the life of our church community. Jesus found those who were considered to be outside of God’s kingdom and offered them a place right at the heart of it. He made friends with the outcasts and uneducated. At XLP, we work with many of the young people most likely to be excluded. By matching struggling young people with a mentor to give them one-on-one support, show them they are valued and that they can have hope and aspirations for the future, we have seen young people turn their lives around and stay in school against the odds. Over three years of XL-Mentoring we have seen countless stories of young people turning their lives around in this way, and we want to encourage volunteer mentors from local churches all over the country to reach out to their communities in this way. Every community has a school, and I would venture to say every school has at least five young people who are struggling, whether it be with issues at home, bullying or academically. Through our training programme XLM National, we aim to equip churches to start their own sustainable mentoring programmes, helping young people like Sophie by giving just two hours a week of their time for a year.
Sophie was paired up with such a mentor and through relationship they were able to tackle the root causes of her behaviour, such as her low self-esteem, and begin to turn her life around. Only nine months later, instead of being excluded, Sophie’s improved behaviour and hard work meant that she was appointed deputy head girl at her school. I’ve been doing youth and community work for the last 20 years, and in that time I’ve worked with some amazing young people who’ve faced some incredible challenges…but some of those young people have managed to come through these challenges. And when I’ve asked them how they did it they have often said ‘there was one person, one individual who spent time with me week after week, who didn’t give up on me, who saw something in me I couldn’t see in myself.’ We would absolutely love it if you and your church or organisation would consider partnering with us with to help see young people and families across the UK overcome the many challenges they are facing.