Ciaran Thapar is the Access and Universities Officer at Ark Globe Academy in South London. He previously worked as a Programme Coordinator for The Access Project, and holds an MSc in Political Theory from LSE. In his spare time he volunteers as a youth worker at the Marcus Lipton Community Centre in Brixton, and writes about social issues and youth perspectives.
As the Access and Universities Officer at Ark Globe Academy, part of my role is to manage interventions that improve the habits and independence in students. Through conversations with students and teachers, I had detected a lack of engagement in some of the boys in Key Stage 3, and was concerned this had the potential to lead to permanent exclusions. Statistics have shown that 60% of all exclusions in the UK are students in Key Stage 3, and if you're a boy, on free school meals, you are much, much more likely to be permanently excluded than other students.
Hero's Journey was inspired by the volunteering work I have been doing in Brixton. It's a peer-to-peer mentoring programme for male students in Key Stage 3 that offers the chance for participants to take part in regular critical discussions. Participants on the programme – known as 'Heroes' – are initially chosen because they need support to act more professionally around school. At Ark Globe, we use a metric called 'Globe Growth'. This is used to measure each student's independence, taking things such as classroom behaviour, punctuality and extracurricular achievements into account. Most of the Heroes start off with low Globe Growth scores.
Hero's Journey focuses on making the boys' experience of school more positive and supportive, and building on that foundation to improve their engagement. It is about providing a currency with which the boys can participate meaningfully in the social economy of the school – as mentors, leaders and team-players. By bringing together a supportive group of students who face a shared set of behavioural challenges to collaborate and debate with, and even mentor one another, the programme helps to make the hardest-to-reach students feel more invested in their school lives.
My experiences as a youth worker have shown me that the emotional and social capabilities of boys at this age can mean that they struggle in a classroom setting. I undertook a FutureLearn course on character development, which gave me the idea to isolate positive character traits (such as courage, honesty and trustworthiness) in order to develop them, thus improving moral capacity and social sensitivity. This general idea underpins the style and aims of Hero's Journey.
We hold weekly discussions, called 'Journeys', that aim to challenge and develop the way that the Heroes respond to social problems. Journeys give participants an opportunity to express their ideas in an open, respectful place. But these discussions also give me the chance to understand the profiles of each Hero, so that I can be an advocate for them around school. For example, I regularly act as a mediator if Heroes have been confrontational with staff members. I've also worked with students who find it difficult to control their anger, by helping them to reflect on strategies that prevent further escalation.
How to run a 'Journey'
Each weekly Journey is chaired using a 'cultural resource'. This could be an image, a scenario or a verse of lyrics, and the aim is for it to spark the discussion. A maximum of ten participants from one year group attends the session. They are encouraged to collaboratively reflect upon and debate whichever theme is presented. Calm, mature and constructive contributions are praised. and in every Journey a 'Hero of the Week' is awarded 'G-points' which contribute positively towards their Globe Growth score.
All the Journeys aim to develop problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, and the ability to apply these to socially problematic challenges. Most are philosophical in nature. One includes a debate about different types of power and how they function across the school. Another looks at ethics and how these apply to our everyday lives. For example, is bullying morally wrong because it causes harm to others - because of its consequences? Or is it because we have a duty to treat others with care?
In other types of Journeys, we define particular character traits or social concepts – such as 'courage', 'respect' and 'trust - whilst asking the Heroes to identify them in their own relationships in the Ark Globe community.
We've used verses of lyrics and poetry to spark discussions about topics such as teenage apathy (Dizzee Rascal - Sittin’ Here), the role of social services (Devlin - Community Outcast) and growth mindset (Tupac Shakur - The Rose That Grew From Concrete).
All Journeys are attended by at least two older students - 'Senior Heroes' – who are expected to keep an eye on their mentees throughout the week. They are either:
- sixth form students who have been chosen for their calm demeanour and maturity; or
- older Heroes who have excelled in their own weekly Journeys.
For those who fit into the second category, graduating to the position of Senior Hero is the ultimate achievement. Currently, two boys in my Year 10 group (Hayden and Pharell, pictured above, middle and on the right) have achieved this. Having them attend Journeys as co-facilitators has had a genuinely transformative effect on how they self-reflect on their own behaviours.
One particularly resonant Journey last year was designed by Demetri, a Senior Hero currently studying at Ark Globe's sixth form (pictured above on the left). Heroes were asked to rank local music artists in order of their good or bad reputations, and justify their choices. It was a really useful launchpad for a debate about how reputations are formed by people's actions. Demetri also won a Jack Petchey award last summer for his commitment to bettering the Ark Globe community as a Senior Hero.
By tracking each Hero's Globe Growth score, we've been able to see the immediate impact of the programme. Anecdotal feedback from subject teachers and from students themselves has been really positive. The Senior Heroes who have progressed into Key Stage 4 are gradually being seen as leaders across the school community who younger boys can lean on for support.
The sixth form students who helped me deliver Hero's Journey have been able to talk about the programme in their personal statements for university. Demetri is applying to study Sociology and Philosophy, partially as a result of his experiences as a mentor and Journey co-facilitator. I'm really proud of the positive impact the Hero's Journey has had on the culture of our school.
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Photographer: Tristan Bejawn