The frisson between educators and 'vulnerable' youth can be productive. Tony Parkin reports from 'Munch Poke, Ping'
A lively group of teenage students are on the train with their teacher. Someone sitting opposite asks "Which school are you from?" "The Bridge Academy," they proudly reply. "Oh, and what is your specialism?" is the educationally-informed stranger’s follow-up question. They giggle, and look at one another... "Bad behaviour," one of them replies.
The Munch, Poke, Ping Conference explored the implications of the mobile internet for helping young, vulnerable people, such as the Bridge Academy students and others in pupil referral units (PRUs), to develop their online resilience.
Students from the Bridge Academy Pupil Referral Unit, and others from several other PRUs in London and Norfolk, were definitely on their best behaviour, and leading the morning session at the Munch, Poke, Ping National Conference, held in London's Shoreditch. And they were able to show their possibly less well-informed audience just how well they understood the issues facing vulnerable young people when it comes to using mobile devices and social media.
"Munch, Poke, Ping" was initially a project, which Stephen Carrick-Davies undertook for the UK Government's Training and Development Agency (TDA). It led to a similarly-titled report in 2011. The focus of the research was to explore the risks which vulnerable young people, such as those excluded from schools and taught in PRUs, encounter online and through their mobile phones. Then to see whether specific advice, support and safeguarding was needed for staff working with these vulnerable young people.
In October 2011, the Nominet Trust awarded Stephen Carrick-Davies a grant to continue the project, and enabled him to extend the development of intensive work with groups of vulnerable young people in other pupil referral units. The main aim of this November 2012 follow-up conference was to disseminate the findings of the project to date, and to celebrate and validate the work being done in PRUs by young people and the staff.
'An authentic frisson of teenage hormones and defensive stroppiness was evident'
It was clear that the students were not always entirely comfortable being the centre of attention at the conference, with an audience largely composed of adults from the rather formal world of the education sector. An authentic frisson of teenage hormones and defensive stroppiness was evident among them throughout the morning sessions.
The media that they showed, that had been devised, scripted and acted by themselves, were powerful and effective at highlighting their issues. Clearly their films also made several of them equally uncomfortable; seeing themselves onscreen seemed to be embarrassing. This served to bring home one of the key messages – these were students that were used to being overlooked, being excluded, and they generally actively avoided the limelight. But they have a strong voice, and important messages to deliver, and should not be ignored.
They had clearly relished the opportunity to make the films with Stephen Carrick-Davies and director Julian Parmiter, although that didn’t mean they were going to make everyone’s life easy at a conference. Between the films the pupils were given an opportunity to add their thoughts – and they added some real insights. One of the students from the Bridge Academy pointed out that online gaming allowed her to get rid of a lot of her aggression online, and that was probably a safer place to do it than in her real, offline life.
A student from a PRU in Southwark, discussing his smartphone, made one of the simplest and clearest observations of the discussion session: “If you want to keep your things private, you shouldn’t put them on something that was designed for communicating stuff.” And between student-led sessions their mobile devices kept the students happy and actively engaged while the audience listened to other conference speakers, including their teachers.
Seamus Oates, former head of the Bridge Academy and now tri-borough executive head covering PRUs in Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea , the source of the train story, described the range of approaches in the PRUs he now worked in. From one with a metal detector and searches on entry through to the more relaxed style experienced elsewhere. But what they had in common was a strong ethos to work hard at supporting the young people in their care.
'The bewildering speed at which language shifts and morphs'
Chris McDonald, of the I-Speke Out project from Speke in Liverpool had not been able to bring the students that he had wanted to speak to the conference about their Blackberry Messaging. On the hastily shot video interview, students Jess and Tom were even, arguably, more effective at showing the audience both the close bonds that the students develop with their peers, and the bewildering, temporary and local speed at which their language and communications shifts and morphs.
Between these PRU-focused sessions students Joseph and Esther Adefarakan did a superb job of interviewing, and corralling, two technology provocateurs, Bill Thompson and Graham Brown-Martin, who were appropriately confrontational and provocative and got everyone thinking a little differently. And Research in Motion’s Elizabeth Kanter bravely entered a debate on the media-demonised Blackberry Messenger, with Katie Bacon of Online Youth Outreach, and Chris McDonald whose students used BBM as their primary communications channel. There was a general consensus that BBM was merely one current channel of choice, rather than the root cause of any of the issues being debated. Elizabeth was clearly relieved that this audience saw past the technology issues.
In the afternoon sessions the students disappeared to have a creative time of it in video workshops, and the discussion sessions took on a rather darker tone. Or rather, the subject matter seemed darker. Tink Palmer, chair of the UKCISS subgroup looking at e-safety for vulnerable young people, apologised in case she was a "party-pooper" in exploring sensitive issues such as grooming and sexual abuse. She need not have worried. At the start of the conference Stephen Carrick-Davies had criticised the early part of his own work in the area for focusing on the danger aspects, rather than the positive and challenge-solving resilience and safety aspects. Tink underlined this, saying, “We should shift from focusing on vulnerability online to resilience online. We need an 'Online Resilience Index' not an 'Online Vulnerability Index’”. This positive message carried through all the potentially darker afternoon sessions, and presentations and discussions focused relentlessly on the affirmatory and positive.
'She brought home the real positive potential of online communities'
None more so than the session by the impressive Kat Cormack, who told us that at 23 this was her first event not as a ‘young person’ but as a health professional. Kat works for Young Minds, and is currently seconded to the NHS working on an app for young people with a focus on mental and sexual health and well-being. Calmly and quietly, Kat told us of her own history of self-harming, and the failure of many near to her to understand and cope with the challenge that that presented.
Where Kat had found help, and crucially peers that were slow to judge and quick to offer support was online, and she brought home the real positive potential of online communities to help provide the empathy and resilience needed by many vulnerable young people. It is hard to describe the feeling in the room as Kat finished her session without risking either sensationalising or trivialising the experience.
For many this was the affirmatory and positive peak of a day that generally avoided the demonising and critical nature of many such debates. And the session also served to emphasise that 50 per cent of the students currently in PRUs are not there for behavioural reasons, but for medical and, increasingly, mental health issues. Kat’s own blog now offers a lifeline and crucial resource links to young people who may find themselves where she was.
In an equally positive vein Dr Richard Graham, Clinical Director of the Adolescent Psychiatrist at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation, explored aspects of the impact of internet use, including addiction, brain and behavioural changes, and detoxification strategies. Dan Sutch, head of development at the Nominet Trust, cunningly rounded off the day with a ‘Reflections and What do we do next’ session by posting this online at tinyurl.com/munchpokeping to allow people to review his thoughts, and post their own reflections.
This project has also provided us with some useful and practical resources, both the films made by the young people for use with young people, and a rich hinterland of ‘The making of...’ reflective discussion videos, ideal for continuing professional development. To follow will come publications such as an AUP Training Toolkit, to be produced by Hinton House Publishing that will be ready by Spring 2013. All this and more can be found at the Munch Poke Ping website where you can also find out from the report (or the summary) why it was called Munch Poke Ping in the first place.