Disengaged pupils can be reconnected to their learning by teachers will to take innovative approaches already seen in the health sector. But do schools have the time, funds and courage to try out these ideas?

A year on from the launch of the coalition government’s “workload challenge”, the burden on teachers is still under scrutiny.

Sir Michael Wilshaw warned just last week of the real danger of teacher exhaustion. He made his remark in a speech about the “one-size-fits-all” comprehensive challenge of catering to children of all ages and abilities, but the burden extends far beyond that.

Successive changes to curriculums, exams and inspections have all taken their toll, but, above and beyond that, schools are expected to deal with a host of broader social changes – such as complying with the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, accommodating new migrants, or combating the effects of food poverty.

Among the many dangers of a strained system is the limited scope for experimenting with new ways of doing things. But that scope is desperately needed, particularly in the face of some alarming statistics about levels of student disengagement. This is why, over the past two academic years, Demos has been working with four secondary schools to pilot a new approach to re-engaging students at risk of disengagement from education.

Central to the pilot was the idea of
“co-production” – tried and tested in health and social care settings, but less so in the classroom. Co-production involves giving the user of a service – in this case, students – a more prominent role in its design and delivery.

Outside of education, the outcomes have been positive. Patients with long-term conditions have shown an improved ability to manage their condition, and reported a more positive experience of care, while health and care professionals reported gains in their knowledge and skills as a result of working in close partnership with those they treat.

There are indications, too, that
co-production approaches save money over the longer term; the thinktank Nesta has put a figure of £4.4 billion savings a year across England on the flagship People-Powered Health programme.

Our pilot has
some real individual
success stories

Bringing this co-production theory to schools, Demos sought to give students at risk or on the brink of exclusion a new opportunity to connect with their peers and the broader school environment. Since September 2013, a total of 64 students have had the chance to work closely with school staff to identify things about school they wanted to change, and make those changes happen. In practice, that has meant different things in different schools – making classes more active, raising money to transform a school garden, and establishing a lunchtime sports club.

When dealing with students prone to behavioural issues or truancy, and when asking already pressured teachers to take on new additional activities, it is unsurprising the pilot yielded mixed results. If our pilot had a school report, it would perhaps read “shows promise, but applies itself inconsistently”. Nonetheless, there have been some real individual success stories among our two cohorts, and it is these stories that give hope that co-production could, in the right circumstances, offer students a transformative new pathway.

Some of these stories are small but personally significant: coming to school in shoes rather than trainers; completing homework for the first time; no longer getting sent out of maths lessons. Some are bigger and more tangible: being trusted to go on a school trip abroad; avoiding an exclusion; working towards a Duke of Edinburgh Award.

The feedback from schools that took part in the pilot show a genuine belief in the co-production model and its capacity for change. School leaders saw a real value in involving often-disenfranchised students in decision-making, students got a boost from being listened to, and staff told us they enjoyed the chance to get to know a group of students who would not usually be a priority for intervention.

Yet over and over again, schools told us they could not devote the time and space they believed the pilot deserved. The need for creativity should be front and centre of our expectations of schools, and our expectations of teachers. Government must do what it can to provide that room. It must provide funding that gives schools discretion to trial new approaches, and an inspection regime that rewards innovation.