Polly Harrow sees her new role as the country’s first FE student support champion as being the “most perfect challenge”.
After spending 25 years in FE, including ten as chair of the National Association for Managers of Student Services (NAMSS), few others understand the difficulties of providing support to college students amid the spiralling mental health and cost-of-living crises more than Harrow.
As well as being assistant principal for student experience at Kirklees College, she is senior safeguarding lead, a national practitioner in trauma-informed mental health, a restorative practitioner and senior mental health lead.
She is also “determined” in her belief in social justice and carries a deep understanding of the needs of vulnerable young people, having been through “a lot of trauma” in her own life.
Passion for restorative justice
The work she does nationally to encourage restorative justice approaches in education was inspired by having gone through such a process herself.
Her brother-in-law was murdered by a 17-year-old in a drug-induced, unprovoked attack. When the attacker left prison aged 24, Harrow and her husband met him during a restorative justice meeting, accompanied by probation and social workers. It was a “painful but ultimately transformative experience” that “made a huge difference in our lives, and the lives of our bereaved nephews”.
“I realised how beneficial it is to young people to have trauma-aware and restorative practitioners in dealing with what students might present. Instead of only judging the person, we should always be curious about the need that lies behind their behaviour.”
As we meet over coffee at the Association of Colleges’ annual conference the day after her new DfE role was announced, Harrow has “yet to nail” exactly what it will involve. Student support is, after all, “so vast, deep, wide and complex”.
Harrow does “not want to be controversial” in this interview and offend her new bosses. However, there is one issue she feels strongly about which might ruffle some feathers there – the impact of rising school exclusions on young people entering colleges.
She’s just spent a year researching youth violence, tracking 16–17-year-old college students all the way back to year six and identifying “missed opportunities” to help them. In “all cases” where the college students exhibited “significant behavioural needs”, they had previously been excluded from school. The boy who killed Harrow’s brother-in-law had also been permanently excluded.
Harrow believes “there’s a direct correlation that we cannot continue to ignore.”
“The impact on a child of exclusion or suspension can be devastating. Yet we still do it.”
She hesitates before saying: “If you want something controversial … I’m really hoping that the government looks at exactly where the oversight of academy trusts is, to protect children as a priority from the number of exclusions we’re seeing.”
DfE’s behaviour tzar Tom Bennett appears to take a different stance. He told sister publication Schools Week’s recent investigation on rising exclusions that “schools that exclude legally should be supported, not censured, for performing their duty to the children and staff in their communities.”
He has also criticised trauma-informed practice, telling educators to “be very cautious” about implementing it.
Having only stepped down as NAMSS chair this year, Harrow believes that most other student services leads share her “concern” about “home educating, off rolling and the number of exclusions” in schools. But she’s not taking anything for granted.
She plans to spend the coming weeks going “out into the sector” in her new role “to ask them what they would like” her to tell her new bosses.
‘FE on the map’
FE is used to being treated as an afterthought to higher education.
The announcement of Harrow’s role, although welcomed, came 18 months after the Department for Education appointed a student support champion for higher education – Nottingham Trent University vice chancellor Edward Peck.
Similarly, the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) for students agreed to a report on the impact of the rising cost of living on FE students (published in July) only after it had already published an initial report in March focused on HE. But Harrow sees her appointment as a sign that her sector is now “fully on the map” when it comes to government policy.
“We were going to be taken off the table it seemed some years ago, we were fearful of the future of our sector. And here we are back on the table in so many ways … and really focusing on the mental health of our staff and students.” But “there’s a lot to do”, she added.
Student services ‘more valued’ by colleges
The APPG report, based on evidence from nearly 80 college staff and 700 students through an AoC survey, found almost three-quarters (72 per cent) faced costs that were putting them in financial difficulty.
Student bursaries have become “essential for family budgets”, with some students walking long distances to college to save on public transport.
The 16 to 19 bursary fund which replaced the education maintenance allowance (EMA) in 2011 is less than a third of its size and targets a lot fewer learners. And colleges face “problems” because minimum wage apprentices – currently earning £5.28 an hour – are not eligible for bursaries.
Colleges are stepping up to do what they can. A survey undertaken for FE Week by NAMSS members from 18 colleges showed over a third hosting food banks, and almost half providing a warm after-hours space.
Harrow believes student support services are now more valued by colleges than they were a decade ago when some colleges were “cutting back” on pastoral and counselling services.
“Colleges really recognise the significance of those services now, because they have to. That’s what my post is all about. If students and staff feel emotionally and psychologically safe in their study and workplace, we will have better attendance, retention, achievement and progression.”
Becoming a safeguarding champion
Being a trauma-aware, restorative and anti-racist organisation is a key strategic priority for Kirklees College, and an area which Harrow leads on. Its reputation even extends to Sweden: a delegation from the country, arranged through DfE, recently visited the college twice wanting to replicate their model.
Harrow believes working at “such an inclusive college” puts her in “good stead” for her new role, which is a two-year appointment taking up around 25 days per year.
She will “act as a channel between the sector and the government, driving a strategic approach to informing and improving the experience of students at colleges”, skills minister Robert Halfon said when he announced her appointment.
Harrow believes she understands the “profound barrier” that not having “emotional, physical or psychological safety at home” has on learning, because she did not have that sense of safety growing up.
Her career path began in marketing, in a role “raising the profile of child protection” in schools for The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
It sparked her interest in safeguarding, although it was not until around a decade later that she moved into her first pastoral role. In between, she completed a degree in English from the University of Huddersfield followed by a PGCE and a stint teaching English A level among other things at Dewsbury College (now part of Kirklees College).
Harrow spent the next seven years from 2005 at Barnsley College running student support, enrichment and safeguarding.
It was while there that she spotted puppeteer, Steve Wright on the BBC show Dragon’s Den, explaining how he uses streetwise puppets to teach social issues to young people. Although the Dragons didn’t back him, Harrow did: she called him up asking him to work on a youth engagement project at her college, and they’ve been together ever since. Wright now holds puppetry workshops in colleges and schools across the country.
Harrow’s former employer Dewsbury College morphed with Huddersfield Technical College to become Kirklees College, which Harrow joined in 2012.
The focus of student support has changed considerably since then. In 2014, The Prevent duty and Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance changed safeguarding “beyond recognition”, with the violence against women and girls agenda now being “very important” to colleges.
Harrow is disappointed that the focus for Ofsted’s 2021 review into sexual abuse, sparked by the Everyone’s Invited movement, was schools. The review revealed the scale at which young people consider harmful sexual behaviours “normal”.
Of 32 two-day visits undertaken by the watchdog for their research, only two were to FE colleges.
Harrow believes “very little evidence” has been gathered to show the situation in colleges. “But there’s an enormous amount of activity around addressing sexual harm in colleges. Everyone in the FE sector takes this stuff really seriously.”
Harrow believes extremism on campuses has declined in recent years, but she has been personally involved in some cases of it which she wrote a blog about for the Education Training Foundation.
In one, a female student raised concern about a fellow student’s Facebook post stating he “cannot wait to go jihad”. Harrow and a Prevent team colleague met several times with the boy, engaging in “really thoughtful dialogue” with him.
A few months later two of his friends went to Syria, one becoming the ‘UK’s youngest ever suicide bomber’. But he did not join them.
In another incident, a personal tutor raised concerns after her 17-year-old business studies student became “sullen”, shaved his head and doodled a swastika and an arrow with the word ‘kill’ to where a classmate had been seated.
This was before the Prevent Duty came into force, but Harrow reported those concerns to police. The boy was subsequently found in a car with four adult males with weapons, and a “plan to cause violent harm to some targeted Asian males”.
Harrow wrote that “without the staff training and good communication with the police team, that intended violent crime would not have been disrupted.”
Drivers of mental health challenges
Harrow believes that aside from community and home issues, “eco-anxiety” is also driving poor mental health, with a “real fear about what’s happening to the planet” which “young people are talking about”.
Then there’s the online world. “You can make yourself look however you would wish to behind a screen, which might be quite at odds with the reality”. Kirklees College has had cases of young people “finding it very difficult to come to college, because they were worried about being seen physically”.
Harrow believes young people are now living in a very different world to the one she once knew.
“This is their world. It’s got a lot of positives and joy, but also a lot of things they’re anxious about. We really do have to have empathy with our young people. They need to be seen, heard and valued by all educators.”