Ofsted was right to chastise us for poor student retention, says Len Tildsley, but our learning journey since shows unlocking success requires more than resilience. So what do you need, and what happens when you apply that to young people?

Four years ago we had a particular problem with retention of young students.  We simply lost too many, including a significant drop-out during the first 42 days.  Messages about ‘early losses not counting in the stats’ had been mis-interpreted as ‘get the more challenging students out quickly’. 

We were also losing too many during the year and this quite rightly helped to trigger an Ofsted inspection in September 2016.  We deserved the ‘requires improvement’ grades, but we had already taken steps to change the culture, practice and processes that had led us into this position.

We hadn’t been paying enough attention to the support of those at risk of early drop-out. We hadn’t fully considered the reasoning that leads a young person to leave after only a short period, despite the fact that they had chosen to come to us in the first instance and had progressed through all of the challenges of application, interview and induction.  

When we did look back at some of the withdrawal reasons recorded on our system, we had far too many stating simply ‘course not suitable’. The only conclusion was that either their personal circumstances had changed or that we had failed to provide the quality of experience that we had promised.  We had to do something to reverse this perpetual failure.

We had to do something to reverse this perpetual failure

Our first change was to appoint a team of progress coaches, who form a core part of our learner journey team.  They are advocates for the student, and keep an eye on attendance and progress.  They look for warning signs and can mobilise a range of other staff and resources should an individual student need extra help and support.  They are a proxy for their parent and the front line for intervention and safeguarding. They really are like a sports coach – keeping them motivated and on track, picking them up and helping them if they are struggling and cheering them to the finish line of achievement and progression.

People and their relationships are vital, but processes are also important to bring focus on and remove the stigma from any doubts a student might be feeling, especially in the early weeks of a new programme. 

We introduced the Swap Don’t Drop initiative in September 2017, a cross-college approach to encourage students to consider alternative programmes if the one that they had chosen wasn’t meeting their expectations, or they had simply decided that their future career needed to take a different direction. We had a poster campaign supported by teaching staff, progress coaches and the Student Union.

Although we promoted this from the outset, we also understood that students who were wobbling needed intensive guidance and support, and opportunities to act.  We paired the campaign with what we called Right Choice Week.  Scheduled for the fourth week of term, we set aside timetabled periods when students could try out other pathways. We threw in careers guidance sessions and drop-in opportunities for students to discuss their options with independent specialists and their progress coach.

All of these initiatives and structures combined have paid off.  There is still work to do, but our 42-day withdrawal rate over has fallen steadily from 5.2 per cent in 2017, to 3.4 per cent in 2018. It currently sits at 1.5, and looks set to remain below two per cent.  

It’s all too easy to find reasons or factors to blame for young people not accessing or rejecting education, but if you keep your expectations high, and take responsibility for your part in their journey, you can transform opportunity. After all, they came this far, and they came to us. Offering them support and opportunities to change their minds seems the least we can do.