As a SEND college, we had worked hard throughout the pandemic and the resulting ongoing impact to support the mental health of our students and families. Ironically, across our campuses in London and Manchester, we felt we were beginning to return to a more normal time. Our students, all of whom have an education, health and care plan for learning difficulties, disabilities, social anxiety, or autistic spectrum disorders, were re-engaging with work placements and our curriculum delivery was regaining its consistency in the absence of interruptions.
Then, on 7 October last year, the world changed again. Langdon is a Jewish college whose aim is to ensure its students experience a supportive, nurturing and culturally appropriate learning environment. Until that Saturday, their experiences and knowledge of Israel were of joy and family. Overnight, friends lost loved ones and fear increased among their family members. For our young students, this not only challenged their perceptions of the world but brought the fear of antisemitism to the front of their minds.
The impact was immediate. On Monday morning, our independent students were already expressing a sudden fear of walking to college or using public transport. Many became reluctant to attend work placements which they had been confidently attending until then. Indeed, some began to question attending college at all out of fear of attacks.
One conversation I held with a young man saddened me. “Am I going to be abused in the streets?” he asked.
Antisemitic behaviour has far-reaching consequences, particularly when it comes to the impact on young people. It can have a profound effect on anyone’s mental health, social integration, and overall well-being – and not least on the youngest and the most vulnerable among us. Antisemitic incidents may cause young people to question their own identity and heritage, leading to confusion and self-doubt. It is a sad consequence of recent events that our college has experienced this for the first time.
Faced with this new challenge, we have ensured that additional focus was placed on supporting our young people. We have always provided and encouraged an open environment for our young people to raise concerns. As such, our students did share their fears and worries, and this enabled us to have open discussions.
This approach is vital to ensure we have an opportunity to listen and reassure while promoting a strong sense of identity. Fostering a supportive environment and encouraging an open dialogue can empower young people to stand against prejudice and work towards creating a more inclusive society.
Alongside supporting our students, we have worked hard to ensure our multicultural team feel supported and safe. The impact on the staff can be overlooked, but their concerns and fears (particularly in the immediate aftermath of an event like this) should not be overlooked.
We have also increased security at our campuses, which has acted as a visual demonstration to all that we are ensuring safety is a priority. Sadly, it is also a visual reminder that times have changed.
But let us not forget that this is an ongoing challenge. It requires a collective effort to promote tolerance, education and understanding, creating a society in which our students can thrive without fear and discrimination.
The college continues to provide additional one-to-one and tutorial support for those who need it as news from Israel continues to dominate the headlines and conversations at home. We continue to encourage open and honest conversations, which allows us not only to reassure them, but also to challenge the misinformation that abounds.
Above all, it is our role to make every effort to maintain a sense of normality and stability for our young people, so we continue to empower them to be proud of who they are.
But that is challenging in a way we have never experienced. “Nothing bad has happened to me yet,” were the somewhat reassured words of the young student I quoted above, at the end of our conversation.
There are students like him in every college. EHCP or not, their needs right now will be profound and complex. Our collective response must be equal to that.