A year ago Kiran Gill was writing angry columns for Schools Week that kicked against the “no excuses” culture in schools that favoured the exclusion of children rather than determined inclusion. Then she disappeared.
But the 28-year-old is back after a stint in the civil service silenced her for a time, and she’s ready to start attacking again – only this time, with a plan for action.
She is the founder of a programme called The Difference, which aims to get more teachers working in alternative provision and pupil referral units.
“These places really struggle to recruit qualified teachers,” she says, as we walk in east London. “A lot of people who have moved into it did it quite circumstantially. Maybe they were running internal inclusion units, and a child was excluded, and they learned about where they went. But because we haven’t had teacher training in referral units and alternative provision for a long time – although this changed recently – a lot of people simply don’t know these schools exist.”
We need Teach First thoughts about alternative provision
Gill wants to change the status of teaching excluded pupils in the same way that training provider Teach First change the status of teaching in a complex inner-city school.
“That’s not to say people weren’t already teaching in those places,” Gill is careful to point out, “They were! My mum did that. And my dad. But Teach First made it a high-status thing. It embedded the idea that the best teachers are those who teach in a super difficult context. We need the same thoughts about alternative provision.”
In terms of super difficult contexts, any teacher going into alternative provision is looking down the barrel of some seriously grim statistics.
Children who are permanently excluded are twice as likely to be in care, four times more likely to be from a low-income family and nine times more likely to have a special educational need or disability. Only 1 per cent go on to achieve five GCSEs, including English and maths. Their likelihood of ending up in prison is extremely high.
“Plus there’s all kinds of hidden disadvantages,” Gill adds. “Maybe their parents are in prison. Or are alcoholics or involved in substance abuse. Things happen in their lives, like bereavement, or sexual abuse, things that we don’t have data on.
“These are not bad children. But they are often children who don’t have parents who can fight for them to get the ECHP [education, care and health plan] they need in primary school. They might not have advocates who can help a school to understand them and to get them the resources they need.”
Gill’s understanding of such complex situations comes from her own background. Raised in Doncaster and east London by a single mother, who herself was raised by a single mother, Gill comes from a line of women who were “very, very determined, and self-possessed and who were very, very bad at waiting for permission”.
Gill’s mother, Dawn, was a geography teacher in central London during the 1980s, in ethnically diverse communities. Concerned the curriculum glorified the empire, she created a subject association that pushed for change, eventually influencing and changing the curriculum nationally.
Beyond the classroom, Dawn was also pioneering in another way. Single and 50 she adopted two young girls.
“She always wanted a big family and while she was raising me on her own she wanted to adopt, but couldn’t, until New Labour changed the law to make it easier for gay and single people to adopt. When she said what she was going to do even my grandma said, ‘you can’t do that’!”
But Dawn Gill has never listened to what she ought to do and, when Kiran was 11, she was joined by two younger sisters who had moved through foster families.
Child psychologists know that disruptive early relationships can affect children’s ability to interpret and control emotions, which has an impact on learning. Gill saw her sisters struggle to trust others. Public criticisms and minor reprimands prompted extreme reactions.
Seeing her sisters’ journey gave Gill an unsettled feeling when she followed her mother’s footsteps and went into teaching, but found herself frustrated that she wasn’t able to build relationships as much as she wanted with pupils. “I knew how important relationships were to change lives because I know how life doesn’t stop when you finish school or when you come home.”
After four years teaching in two London schools – including King Solomon Academy, one of the first and strictest “no excuses” schools – she went back to university to study education and policy, and took a series of roles, including a stint in the civil service, working on social mobility.
“I wanted to find out who are the people who make big decisions. Who are these big clever people who know more than I do and who do things every five minutes, it feels like, when you’re on the ground?
“I went into it expecting to find out how complicated it all was. But it became very clear that the only reason things happen is because people do them. That’s it. I became a literacy lead in my school not because I was an expert, but because I realised we weren’t doing enough for low literacy and so asked to do something about it.”
The Difference programme will offer teachers of at least three years’ standing a leadership position in alternative provision or a pupil referral unit.
Participants will gain a masters, with modules in mental health and child development, focused on understanding the multi-disciplinary nature of children’s services.
It’s not about making teachers into psychologists. And it’s not about making them social workers.
“It’s not about making teachers into psychologists. And it’s not about making them social workers. It’s about helping them know more about what other services exist, how they can better broker these services and how that might affect teaching.”
The aim is to have the first cohort starting in September 2019, giving Gill 18 months to gain the funding and team to deliver the programme. She’s fairly confident it can be done.
“It’s not just me driving it. The more I speak to people in the sector the more humbled I am by those already giving their lives to this work.
“I have been to pupil referral units where kids are getting GCSEs and where they get A-levels and where they go to university. I have seen kids who might have had strings of foster carers . . . have a really stable relationship with the people in alternative provision. A relationship that is about forgiveness, and being honest about what is OK and what isn’t.
“We need more people to help with that.”
Is there any problem she can foresee? She shakes her head, “No . . . I’m a bit of an optimist!”
Or, to put it another way, she will not be waiting for anyone’s permission to solve this problem. She simply wasn’t brought up that way.
It’s a personal thing
It’s hard as an English teacher to choose a favourite. Growing up, I really loved Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging (as a teacher I got told off by the head for calling kids to book club and saying “snogging” over the tannoy.) It’s a classic “navigating female teenhood” series: my favourite bit is when the protagonist goes to a fancy dress party dressed as a stuffed olive, thinking it is hilarious, and then all the other girls are dressed in cute costumes and catsuits.
What would you do if you were invisible for a day?
Dance like nobody’s watching.
Describe an amazing party you’ve been to
I love eating so the best parties always have tons of exciting food. My friend Will’s party last year had broccoli cake. That was a pretty stand-out party.
If you could wake up tomorrow with one skill or ability, what would it be?
The ability to be on time. Possibly more useful than being able to bend metal, but as elusive to me
Best career advice?
Some will, some won’t, so what, someone’s waiting.
The Difference is currently surveying teachers which will help with their research into workforce development and exclusion from schools. Take the 3-minute survey here. It can also be accesss via their Facebook and Twitter accounts. The Difference is also up for the Innovation Award – you can vote here. Voting closes on the 29th March.